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Poland's new Prime Minister Donald Tusk takes office, ending 8 years of conservative rule

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Poland's new Prime Minister Donald Tusk takes office, ending 8 years of conservative rule
AP
MONIKA SCISLOWSKA
December 13, 2023

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — The new Polish 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 ceremony of the pro-European Union government, the final step in a transition of power, took place in the presidential palace in Warsaw. Tusk returns to the job 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, said they were looking forward to working with Tusk's team. Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz used 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 that exploited the painful World War II history.

The change of government follows a national election on Oct. 15 that was won by a group of parties running on separate tickets and vowing 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 house slapped the highest possible fine on the lawmaker.

In his policy speech Tuesday, Tusk called on Poland’s fractious political class to unite, saying the nation cannot afford divisions while Russia is waging a war of aggression across the border, a conflict many fear could spread if Moscow prevails.

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

Their disagreements found expression during the ceremony. Duda said that despite the obvious differences he will cooperate with Tusk's Cabinet on matters key to Poland's security and the people's well-being, but stressed that he believes that most things are in perfect shape.

Tusk, whose government was born out of dissatisfaction of majority of voters, said he greeted Duda's declaration “with great joy,” but also emphatically quoted the words of his oath 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 also noted the historic irony of the fact that the ceremony was taking place exactly 42 years after Poland's communist regime of the time imposed martial law, trying 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 countries from the Western Balkans that hope to join the EU. He was to met with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Friday.

The leader of the centrist Civic Platform party who was prime minister from 2007-2014, Tusk faces challenges that include restoring democratic standards in Poland 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 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.

The 67-year-old Tusk has vowed to restore foreign ties strained by the Law and Justice-led government, which bickered even with allies such as Germany and Ukraine and was at odds with the EU over legal changes that eroded the independence of the judicial branch.

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.

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, using it as its mouthpiece.

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