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Centrist reformer Donald Tusk takes over as prime minister of Poland

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Poland's Parliament has voted in a new prime minister, ending eight years of right-wing nationalist rule that chipped away at the country's democratic institutions. Liberal opposition leader Donald Tusk is the new prime minister of the biggest country on the European Union's formerly communist eastern flank.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER DONALD TUSK: (Non-English language spoken).

(APPLAUSE)

FADEL: In a speech this morning to Parliament, Tusk promised to restore democratic norms and mend ties with the European Union. NPR's Rob Schmitz joins us now from Warsaw, where he's been following the transfer of power. Good morning, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Morning, Leila.

FADEL: So Donald Tusk is very different Donald than the American political leader here - right? - different politics. It's a big day for democracy in Europe.

SCHMITZ: Yeah.

FADEL: So how is...

SCHMITZ: Very different Donald.

FADEL: Yeah. How is Tusk going to change Poland as prime minister?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, well, after his coalition government is officially sworn in tomorrow, Tusk is heading straight to Brussels for a European Union summit. And his first job will be to thaw relations between Poland and the EU. Poland's previous government, run by the right-wing Law and Justice Party, despised the EU. The party felt Brussels threatened the country's sovereignty. The relationship got so bad that the EU froze more than $100 billion worth of pandemic funds to Poland because of the damage that Law and Justice had inflicted on both the country's judicial branch and on its free press, violating EU democratic norms. This week, Tusk says he will work on unblocking that money when he meets with EU leaders.

FADEL: And that's a lot of money. Will he be able to accomplish that?

SCHMITZ: Probably. He is the former president of the European Council, the executive branch of the EU, and he has close relationships with EU leaders from his years in Brussels. So this should be an easy lift for him.

FADEL: So how easy will it be for him to undo the damage to these democratic institutions in Poland that Law and Justice inflicted in its eight years of power?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, you've hit upon the difficult part that lies ahead for Tusk and his left-center government. Law and Justice had a lot of time to dismantle key aspects of the Polish judiciary. They installed judges who are loyal to Law and Justice, and removing these judges will be difficult from a legal standpoint. The other challenge is that as leader of the new government, Donald Tusk will need to form a good working relationship with Polish President Andrzej Duda, who has veto powers over many of the changes that Tusk will want to make. Duda aligns himself with the Law and Justice Party, and he's not going to make it easy for this new government. But this is not the first time that Tusk has been prime minister, so he may find some, you know, creative workarounds there.

FADEL: OK, so you're in Warsaw. How are people reacting to this transfer of power?

SCHMITZ: Ah, here in Warsaw, this is - you know, this is a liberal European capital, and it is just jubilant. I spent yesterday at a movie theater that was showing Law and Justice's final session of Parliament, which lasted seven hours. People stayed there that long. And they were playing this on two big screens. Both theaters were packed. I spoke with theatergoer Maria Sawinska (ph) there. Here's what she said.

MARIA SAWINSKA: When you want to celebrate something, you want to celebrate with people. And we are celebrating the change of government, really the change from autocracy to democracy again. It's very important for me. And I've been watching this on YouTube since the beginning of the new Parliament. So when there was a possibility to come and just celebrate it with other people, that was - I mean, it's incredibly nice, and I like it.

SCHMITZ: And, Leila, you know, she mentioned watching Parliament on YouTube. The livestream of Poland's parliamentary debates on YouTube now has 10 times more subscribers than a year ago, evidence that many young people are getting involved in the inner workings of Poland's democracy.

FADEL: NPR's Rob Schmitz, watching politics on the big screen from Warsaw. Thank you, Rob.

SCHMITZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.

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