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Poland: Opposition politician elected speaker of parliament

Poland's new parliament convened for the first time on Monday

Poland's new parliament convened for the first time on Monday

With the election of its candidate as speaker of parliament on Monday, the pro-European, center-left alliance led by Donald Tusk has convincingly demonstrated that it has a robust majority in parliament and is ready to take power immediately.

At the first session of the new Sejm, the lower house of the Polish parliament, Szymon Holownia received more votes than anticipated in the speaker election.

The 47-year-old journalist and former TV host is co-leader of the new centrist Christian Democratic Poland 2050 party, which is part of the alliance hoping to succeed the national-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party in power.

Holownia beat Elzbieta Witek of PiS 265 votes to 193.

'Ready to take responsibility for Poland'

"Mr. President," said Holownia, directly addressing the head of state after his election, "after this vote there can be no doubt that there is a majority in the Sejm that is ready to take responsibility for Poland."

Polish President Andrzej Duda, who was in the Sejm for its first session, announced a week ago that he intended to officially task Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki with forming a government even though PiS lost its majority in the election.

And he was true to his word: On Monday, Duda accepted the resignation of the outgoing government and promptly made Morawiecki caretaker prime minister.

"I believe that the prime minister can form a new government. He assured me that he will get a majority for his new cabinet," said Duda, himself a former member of PiS.

Morawiecki now has 14 days to form a government.

New spirit in parliament

Addressing the Sejm for the first time as speaker, Holownia called for a new style of leadership in parliament. He said the Sejm would in future be neither a "service point for the government" nor a "voting machine."

"The decline of the state began with the decline of parliament," he said, adding: "The rehabilitation of the state will begin with the rehabilitation of parliament."

Holownia's party contested the October 15 election as part of the Third Way alliance, which also included the agrarian Polish People's Party (PSL). His candidacy for the post of speaker was set out in the coalition agreement signed last Friday by the parties of the opposition that hope to form the next government: Tusk's Civic Platform (PO), the Third Way alliance and the New Left.

The pro-European center-left alliance won 248 of the 460 seats in parliament in the election, giving it an absolute majority. PiS has 196 seats.

In the upper chamber of parliament, the senate, the parties in the alliance have an even clearer majority: 66 to 34.

Duda vows to wield his veto powers

Addressing the Sejm on Monday, President Duda urged lawmakers to respect each other. He also assured them that he wanted to work with the new parliament. "The door to the presidential palace is always open," he said.

At the same time, he made it absolutely clear that he would not accept any attempts to question or ignore the powers afforded him by the constitution. "The constitutional order must be preserved, I will not agree to any circumvention or bending of the law," said Duda.

He told parliament that he would use his veto if he concluded that any decision was legally questionable.

Prime Minister-designate Morawiecki used his speech in parliament to burnish his record and set out his stall. He painted a positive image of his six years at the helm and said that the COVID pandemic, the migration crisis, the war in Ukraine and the energy crisis were to blame for the fact that "not all promises could be kept."

Looking to the future, he called for a "Polish Decalogue" — a set of 10 commandments — that would serve as the basis for a "coalition of Polish affairs" led by him. He listed fighting illegal migration and defending Poland's sovereignty as "non-partisan objectives."

Attempts to split the opposition

Since the election on October 15, when it became clear that PiS could not rule alone, Morawiecki has been trying to split the opposition and to win over individual politicians — in particular from the Polish People's Party. So far, he has been unsuccessful.

The result of the deputy speakers' elections dealt another blow to Morawiecki's prospects of gaining enough support to form a government. The candidates put forward by PiS were not elected in either the Sejm or the senate.

This was a particularly bitter defeat for PiS, especially as the far-right Confederation party managed to get its candidate elected deputy speaker.

Kaczynski rails against the Germans and the EU

PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski cannot apparently come to terms with his party's loss of power. In recent public statements, he has stepped up his verbal attacks on Germany and the EU.

Kaczynski told parliament that Tusk is "Germany's man" and accused Tusk's party of "German boorishness." The 74-year-old has also said Tusk's party was "a German, not a Polish party."

In an address on Poland's National Independence Day on November 11, Kaczynski blasted the EU's reform plans, especially those relating to the extension of qualified majority voting. He warned that these reforms could mean the "destruction of the Polish state."

Kaczynski has also warned that "Poland can change into a territory inhabited by Poles but ruled from abroad. Our region will pass to the Germans."

He announced a conference of "all patriotic forces," which would mark the start of a "major societal campaign." Kaczynski also declared that "suffering — even dying — for the fatherland is beautiful."

"PiS's objective is to secure party unity by isolating itself and radicalizing," said political scientist Rafal Chwedoruk.

Change sweeps the parliament — inside and out

Although the opposition alliance will probably have to wait until December to take power, the New Left is already out of the starting blocks.

Female lawmakers from the parliamentary group have put two bills to parliament: one relating to the complete legalization of abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and the other relating to immunity from prosecution for those assisting with abortion.

"We're going to start persuading people and are looking for supporters," said Magdalena Biejat, a senator for New Left.

Outside parliament, too, it was clear that a new political day had dawned. While PiS was in power, the Sejm increasingly came to resemble a fortress. Metal barriers had blocked access to the building, which was heavily guarded by police officers.

On the day the Sejm convened for its first session, however, the barriers were quickly removed.

This article was originally written in German and adapted by Aingeal Flanagan.