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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Jubilation and high expectations as Poland marks end of right-wing rule

By Emily Rauhala and Kate Brady Washington Post

In a cathartic moment for many in Poland, centrist political veteran Donald Tusk got the nod on Monday to be the country’s next prime minister, marking the end of eight years of right-wing nationalist rule and a dramatic shift in the European political landscape.

Tusk’s alliance secured a majority in October elections with a promise to restore Polish democracy and the country’s relationship with European allies.

But with interest and expectations running high, he faces the daunting task of repairing relations with the European Union, depoliticizing the judiciary, restoring the independence of the media, and bolstering the rights of women and minorities - all without alienating the many who sympathize with the old guard.

Prominent among the obstacles is President Andrzej Duda, who has two more years in office and remains loyal to the outgoing Law and Justice party. Duda sought to delay a political transition by first tapping Law and Justice leader Mateusz Morawiecki to serve another term as prime minister. Although Law and Justice remains the largest party in parliament, it is well short of a majority, and Morawiecki’s proposed cabinet lost a vote of confidence on Monday.

That cleared the way for lawmakers to vote in favor of Tusk as the next prime minister. His government is expected to be endorsed in a parliamentary vote, enabling him to take his place among European leaders at gatherings later this week.

“This is a wonderful day, not for me, but for all those who have deeply believed over these years that things will get even better, that we will chase away the darkness, that we will chase away evil,” Tusk said Monday night in the Polish parliament. “From tomorrow, we will be able to right the wrongs so that everyone, without exception, can feel at home,” he added.

There is a sense of “now we can just be back to normal in the sense of what the state is and that public institutions are respected,” said Malgorzata Bonikowska, president of Center for International Relations in Warsaw.

But walking back eight years of Law and Justice party rule won’t be quick - or easy.

Restoring judicial independence

Tusk served as Poland’s prime minister before, from 2007 to 2014. He is also known throughout Europe as a former president of the European Council who helped hold the 27 nations of the E.U. together during the rocky period of Brexit.

That record will make his task somewhat easier as he seeks to get Poland back on good terms with the E.U. One of his priority objectives: to unblock billions in grants and loans that were withheld while Poland challenged the primacy of E.U. laws and allowed politics to influence the selection and disciplining of judges.

But making amends isn’t just about championing the E.U. Poland is supposed to restore the independence of its judiciary.

Duda has threatened to veto legislation aimed at undoing judicial reforms that allowed Law and Justice to stack the courts with loyalists. Even Monday, as Law and Justice was forced to relinquish its hold over the government, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal ruled that fines issued against the country by the Court of Justice of the European Union were unconstitutional.

Tusk could cut a deal with Brussels to unblock some of the money while he makes a good-faith effort to restore judicial independence.

But granting the funds as a goodwill gesture could backfire, said Aleks Szczerbiak, professor of Politics at the University of Sussex. “Then Law and Justice can just say, ‘All of this milestone stuff was nonsense. They were withholding the money just because they didn’t like us. And now that we’ve gone, they’re giving over the money.’”

Restoring freedom of the press

A similar challenge awaits with the media.

Over eight years, Law and Justice consolidated its hold on the press. The state broadcaster, TVP, became a party-controlled outlet known for propagandistic coverage. Poland dropped from 18th to 57th out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index.

Tusk has said he would need “24 hours” to transform public television. In reality, changing the media environment will take time.

Jordan Higgins, of the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, said the challenge is not just broadcasters and newspapers, but the regulatory bodies that Law and Justice put in place.

For instance, members of the National Media Council - a body created by Law and Justice - serve mandatory six-year terms and therefore won’t be going anywhere until 2028. They are responsible for appointing or dismissing supervisory boards of TVP, Polska Radio and the Polish Press Agency.

What’s more, restoring independence to public media might require legal changes - which Duda could block.

One option that has been floated is liquidating public media bodies and placing them into receivership. But Higgins called that a “dangerous precedent.”

Some conservative Polish journalists are already voicing concern about the possibility of an overhaul.

Tusk seems to understand the need to show Law and Justice supporters - and outside allies - that his reforms are not partisan purges. But it may be tough to convince a polarized electorate, said Jakub Jaraczewski, a research coordinator at Democracy Reporting International.

“They very strongly believe that there’s just one political party that can run Poland properly and that’s going to speak to their values,” he said.

A social revolution

Tusk’s government has promised to unleash a social revolution in Poland, ending an era of state-backed homophobia and restoring women’s rights, particularly when it comes to abortion.

In 2020, a top Polish court outlawed abortion under almost any circumstances, a decision that outraged many citizens, put the country at odds with most of the E.U. and presaged what was to come in some U.S. states after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade.

Abortion was one of the most pivotal issues in Poland’s election, according to the main exit poll. Now, for activists and rights groups, Law and Justice’s departure is a major relief.

“After eight years, it’s hard to believe it’s over,” said Natalia Broniarczyk from the support group Abortion without Borders.

While campaigning, Tusk pledged that if his Civic Platform party came to power, it would introduce a law allowing abortion up to 12 weeks.

But the abortion ban is still on the books and Broniarczyk wonders if she can trust Tusk to reverse it. She would like to see an end to the harassment and prosecution of those who help others get abortions.

Without major legal changes, that could be tough, though activists and analysts say there may be ways to loosen restrictions before laws are changed.

“I’m waiting for action,” Broniarczyk said. “Because words aren’t really enough.”