Poland’s parliament elects centrist party leader Donald Tusk as prime minister

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s government lost a confidence vote in parliament on Monday, ending the rule of his national conservative party after eight years in power

Members of the Polish Law
Members of the Polish Law and Justice government vote of confidence on Mateusz Morawiecki's (C) government at the Sejm, the lower house of parliament, in Warsaw, Poland, 11 December 2023.PAWEL SUPERNAK (EFE)

Poland’s parliament elected centrist party leader Donald Tusk as prime minister on Monday, paving the way for a new pro-EU government after eight years of stormy national conservative rule.

Tusk becomes prime minister nearly two months after a national election that was won by a coalition of parties ranging from left-wing to moderate conservative. The parties ran on separate tickets but promised to work together under Tusk’s leadership to restore democratic standards and improve ties with allies.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s government lost a confidence vote in parliament on Monday, ending the rule of his national conservative party after eight years in power.

The vote was a key step in a power transition that began Monday in the Polish parliament, where the outgoing national conservative leaders made their farewell statements as a majority of lawmakers prepared to elect Tusk.

The power transition, two months since Poles turned out in huge numbers to vote for change, was delayed for weeks by the president, who chose to keep his political allies in office as long as possible.

Parliamentary proceedings have ignited widespread curiosity and emotions, leading to a spike in the number of subscribers to the Sejm’s YouTube channel.

Szymon Holownia, a former TV showman who leads a party allied with Tusk, became the speaker of parliament last month and has been trying to encourage discipline in the sometimes raucous assembly.

A Warsaw cinema which livestreamed Monday’s proceedings drew hundreds of spectators who munched popcorn and erupted in laughter as the outgoing prime minister spoke.

“So many disturbing things took place in the past eight years that I’m not surprised by this joy that it’s over,” said Justyna Lemanska, a young female ad agency employee in the audience.

The change of power in Poland is felt as hugely consequential for the 38 million citizens of the central European nation, where collective anger produced a record-high turnout to replace a government that had been eroding democratic norms.

There is relief for many women who saw reproductive rights eroded and LGBTQ+ people who faced a government hate campaign that drove some to leave the country.

Law and Justice supporters, however, fear the new government will promote more liberal policies that conflict with many of their conservative views.

The change also has implications for Ukraine and the EU.

Tusk is expected to improve Warsaw’s standing in Brussels. His leadership of the EU’s fifth largest member by population will boost centrist, pro-EU forces at a time when euroskeptics, such as Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, are gaining strength.

Poland’s outgoing government was initially one of Kyiv’s strongest allies after Russia invaded Ukraine last year, but ties have worsened as economic competition from Ukrainian food producers and truckers has angered Poles who say their livelihoods are threatened.

In his speech to Parliament, Morawiecki listed his government’s achievements and his desire for reconciliation in a society so divided it sometimes seems at war with itself.

“We must end the Polish-Polish war,” he said, to applause from his supporters but laughter from critics who remember years of divisive policies. Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski himself defined liberal opponents as “Poles of the worst sort.”

“Let’s choose dialogue. Let’s look for what unites us,” Morawiecki said.

Morawiecki’s government will later face a confidence vote he is expected to lose, exactly six years after he took office on Dec. 11, 2017.

Simple arithmetic indicates he has no chance of survival. Law and Justice won more seats than any other party in the Oct. 15 election but lost its parliamentary majority. A bloc of parties allied with Tusk that range from left-wing to conservative won a majority of 248 seats in the 460-seat body.

Kaczynski, the driving force in the country for the past eight years, pledged that no matter what happened, Law and Justice would pursue its goals until a future victory was possible.

Once elected, Tusk is scheduled to address lawmakers Tuesday before facing a confidence vote he seems sure to win, given that he is backed by a majority.

Former president Lech Walesa, who was hospitalized last week for Covid-19 and remains weak, traveled from his home in Gdansk to attend the parliamentary session.

Wales, the anti-communist freedom fighter who had despaired at the unraveling of democracy under Kaczynski, arrived wearing a sweatshirt with the word “Constitution” — a slogan against Law and Justice. As he sat in a balcony with other dignitaries, many stood to applaud him, chanting his name. Law and Justice representatives did not clap and remained seated.

The final act in the transition of power will take place when President Andrzej Duda swears in Tusk and his government, expected on Wednesday.

Tusk plans to fly to Brussels for an EU summit later in the week where discussions critical for Ukraine’s future. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Russia’s closest ally in the EU, is demanding that Ukraine’s membership in the EU and billions of euros in funding meant for the war-torn country be taken off the agenda.

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