WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Donald Tusk, a leader of a centrist party, returned as Poland's prime minister for the first time in nearly a decade after a vote in parliament on Monday, paving the way for a new pro-European Union government following eight years of stormy national conservative rule.
Tusk, a former EU leader who served as European Council president from 2014-2019 and has strong connections in Brussels, is expected to improve Warsaw’s standing in the bloc’s capital. He was Poland’s prime minister from 2007-2014.
Tusk's ascension to power came nearly two months after an election which 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.
The change of power is felt as hugely consequential for the 38 million citizens of the Central European nation, where collective anger against the Law and Justice party produced a record-high turnout to replace a government many believed was eroding democratic norms.
Law and Justice, which took office in 2015, increased its power over courts and judicial bodies, drawing accusations from the EU and others that it was eroding judicial independence. It also turned taxpayer funded public media into a party mouthpiece.
The vote was 248-201 in support of Tusk in the 460-seat lower house of parliament, the Sejm, with no abstentions.
“Thank you Poland, this is truly a wonderful day," Tusk said in a short speech. “Not only for me, but for all those who throughout these many years deeply believed ... that things would get better.”
Tusk is scheduled on Tuesday to give a more substantial speech to parliament, present his Cabinet and face a vote of confidence for his new government. He should then be sworn in by President Andrzej Duda, a step scheduled for Wednesday morning.
The election of Tusk comes after the former government of Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki lost a confidence vote in parliament earlier in the day.
The votes marked the ended of eight tumultuous years in which Law and Justice ruled the country with the support of many Poles — but at bitter odds with liberal Poles as well as the 27-nation EU and other Western allies.
Tusk's 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.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen could hardly contain her elation in congratulating Tusk.
“Your experience and strong commitment to our European values will be precious in forging a stronger Europe, for the benefit of the Polish people," she tweeted. "I look forward to working with you, starting with this week’s important” summit, which begins Thursday.
The power transition, coming nearly two months after the election, was delayed for weeks by Duda, who kept his political allies in office as long as possible.
Voters who opted for change, including many young Poles, were eager for the transition to finally arrive, and the parliamentary proceedings have ignited widespread interest, leading to a spike in the number of people watching the parliament's livestream online.
Szymon Holownia, a former reality television personality who leads a party allied with Tusk, became the speaker of parliament last month and has attracted interest as he has tried to encourage discipline in the sometimes raucous assembly.
A Warsaw cinema, which livestreamed Monday’s proceedings, drew spectators who munched on 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 advertising agency employee in the audience.
Law and Justice remains popular with many conservatives thanks to its adherence to traditional Roman Catholic values, and the popularity of social spending policies. The party lowered the retirement age and introduced cash payments to families with children while also increasing pension payments to older people.
The day marked a bitter turn for Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the conservative ruling party leader who has guided Poland for the past eight years but now, at 74, is seeing the huge power he wielded slip away.
Kaczynski has for years accused Tusk, who has good relations with Germany and other countries, of representing the interests of Berlin, though there is no evidence of that.
At the end of the parliamentary session, Kaczynski went up the lectern, turned to Tusk, and said with anger: “You are a German agent, simply a German agent.”
Tusk frowned, while Holownia expressed his disappointment that the day ended on a bitter note.
Former President Lech Walesa, who was hospitalized last week with COVID-19 and remains weak, traveled from his home in Gdansk to attend the parliamentary session.
The anti-communist freedom fighter had despaired at what he viewed as the unraveling of democracy under Kaczynski. He appeared in parliament wearing a shirt with the word “Constitution” — a slogan against Law and Justice. He watched the events from a balcony, and was given a standing ovation by Tusk and other political admirers.
Tusk's government will have many challenges to face, including Russia's war across the border in Ukraine.
Tusk plans to fly to Brussels for an EU summit later in the week for discussions critical to Ukraine’s future. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, 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.
Poland’s outgoing government was initially one of Kyiv’s strongest allies after Russia invaded Ukraine nearly two years ago, but ties have worsened as economic competition from Ukrainian food producers and truckers has angered Poles who say their livelihoods are threatened.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tweeted his congratulations to Tusk, saying: “When we stand together, both our nations’ freedom is unbeatable.”
Monika Scislowska, Rafal Niedzielski and Michal Dyjuk contributed to this report.
Vanessa Gera, The Associated Press