Eight Years of Conservative Rule in Poland Ends as Donald Tusk Becomes Prime Minister

AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski
Poland’s new Prime Minister Donald Tusk, centre, walks past ministers during the swearing-in ceremony at the presidential palace in Warsaw, Poland, Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023.

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland’s new prime minister, Donald Tusk, and his Cabinet members took office Wednesday after they were sworn in by the president, marking the end of eight tumultuous years of rule by a national conservative party, Law and Justice.

The swearing-in of the pro-European Union government, the final step in a transition of power, took place during a ceremony at the presidential palace in Warsaw. Tusk, 67, is returning to the prime minister’s post after a nine-year spell during which he held a top EU position and was the Polish opposition leader.

Leaders and senior officials from around the world, including U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and NATO Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, congratulated Tusk and said they looked forward to working with him and his team. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz used the Polish language to amplify his congratulatory message to “dear Donald Tusk.”

“Donald Tusk wants Poland to be again in the heart of the EU, and that’s where her place is,” Scholz said. “I am happy that together, arm in arm with Poland, we can develop the EU and the Polish-German relations.”

The neighboring countries’ ties were strained under the previous government, which exploited their painful World War II history.

The change of government follows a national election on Oct. 15 that a group of parties, including the Tusk-led Civic Platform won while running on separate tickets. They vowed to work together under Tusk’s leadership to restore democratic norms eroded by Law and Justice and mend strained relations with foreign allies.

Tusk’s government won a confidence vote in parliament on Tuesday evening after an inaugural speech in which he vowed to demand that the West keep up its support for Ukraine.

The confidence vote was delayed when a far-right lawmaker, Grzegorz Braun, used a fire extinguisher to put out the candles of a menorah during a Hanukkah celebration dedicated to Poland’s Jewish lawmakers of the 1920s and 1930s.

Tusk and other leaders sharply condemned the antisemitic provocation. Braun’s party suspended his parliament mandate while the lower house of parliament gave him the highest possible fine.

President Andrzej Duda, an ally of the previous administration, swore in Tusk’s government after having delayed the power transition as long as he could.

Duda said during the ceremony that despite their obvious differences, he would cooperate with Tusk’s Cabinet on matters key to Poland’s security and the well-being of citizens. But he stressed that he thinks most things are in perfect shape.

Tusk, whose government was born out of dissatisfaction among the majority of voters, said he received Duda’s declaration “with great joy” but also emphatically quoted the words of his oath of office that pledge respect for Poland’s Constitution and other laws. Duda’s critics accuse him of bending the constitution, even disregarding it in some cases, as he backed Law and Justice policies.

Tusk, who served as Poland’s prime minister in 2007-2014, also noted that the ceremony was taking place exactly 42 years after the country’s communist regime of the time imposed martial law to try to destroy the surging Solidarity freedom movement. Eventually, Solidarity prevailed, paving the way for democratic rule.

Later Wednesday, Tusk traveled to Brussels for an EU summit and leaders’ talks with the six Western Balkans countries that hope to join the EU. He is scheduled to hold talks with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Friday.

As the head of Poland’s government, Tusk faces challenges that include restoring democratic standards and working for the release of EU funding that was frozen due to democratic backsliding by his predecessors — something he promised to achieve quickly.

He said his goal in Brussels was to “strengthen the European determination” in supporting Ukraine and to boost the belief in its eventual victory against Russia.

He also promised to work with European partners to address irregular migration, an issue of growing concern in Poland and the continent after thousands of people, many from the Middle East, tried to cross into the EU from Belarus, across Poland’s eastern border.

Speaking to journalists Wednesday, Tusk said that “Poland is back in Europe. “

“This is, for me, the most important moment in my political life, I think,” he said.

Tusk’s Cabinet includes a former foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, taking up that role again. Adam Bodnar, a respected human rights lawyer and former ombudsman, was tapped as justice minister, tasked with reversing the previous administration’s actions that gave it more control of the judiciary.

Tusk named Wladyslaw Kosiniak-Kamysz, an experienced politician and agrarian party leader, as his defense minister. For Kosiniak-Kamysz, 42, Poland’s security is safeguarded by its membership in NATO and the EU. In the face of war across Poland’s border, he has vowed to focus on strengthening the defense potential of the armed forces.

The new culture minister is Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz, a former interior minister under Tusk and the great grandson of “Quo Vadis” author Henryk Sienkiewicz, a winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. His first task will be to free state media from political control that the previous government exerted.