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Poland’s voters reject their right-wing government, but many challenges lie ahead

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland’s voters delivered a clear verdict. After eight years of rule by a right-wing government, they have had enough. While the conservative ruling Law and Justice party won more votes than any other single party in a parliamentary election on Sunday, it lost its majority and will not hold enough seats to govern the country.

Three opposition groups who waged an energetic campaign on promises to help restore national unity, rule of law and cooperative ties with the European Union and other allies, are poised to get their turn to steer the Central European nation of 38 million people. But the path ahead will be demanding. Here are five challenges facing the country in its transition.

THE TRANSITION OF POWER

Some Poles have voiced concerns that the ruling party, like former President Donald Trump in the United States and supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, might resist the verdict of the voters.

Some anxiety was triggered by words uttered Sunday night by party leader Jarosław Kaczyński, after an exit poll showed the victory of opposition parties. He warned that “days of struggle and all kinds of tensions” were ahead.

A party lawmaker, Radosław Fogiel, said Kaczyński was referring to tensions that he expected to emerge among the opposition parties, and that Law and Justice intends to respect the constitutional process and hand over power but would first try to build its own majority.

Fogiel told reporters at an event in Warsaw on Tuesday evening that he expects that a new government could be formed in mid December.

THE PRESIDENT

The actions of President Andrzej Duda, an ally of Law and Justice, will be paramount because it’s his duty as defined by the constitution to start the government formation process.

The president must call the first session of the new parliament within 30 days of the election day, meaning by Nov. 14, and designate a prime minister to build a government. In the meantime, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s government will remain in a caretaker role.

Małgorzata Paprocka, an adviser to Duda, said in a radio interview Tuesday that presidents in recent years have as a first step asked the prime minister candidate from the winning party to try to form a government.

“The president’s main goal is to ensure that the interests of the homeland are secured, that the will of the voters is respected and that the next government takes over the duties of the previous one efficiently. This is a very important issue because times are not easy,” Paprocka said.

If the proposed government fails to win a parliament majority, as can be expected if it’s proposed by Law and Justice, the parliament will then have to propose its candidate for prime minister.

DIVIDED VICTORS

It’s expected that the three-party opposition, which has won a solid parliament majority, will form a government and take over power. It has vowed to reverse Law and Justice policies that have left the country isolated internationally and divided at home.

To do so, it will need to keep unity within its own ranks, and that might be tricky. The winning opposition camp is made up of several parties and factions that span a broad ideological spectrum, and their programs differ on some key issues.

In an early sign of possible difficulties to come, the head of the conservative agrarian party PSL which ran with the Third Way coalition, Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz, says that relaxing the tight abortion law or other matters of conscience cannot be part of their government pact. For the Left party, those are priorities.

There will also be the delicate matter of the political ambitions of each party leader.

REKINDLING TIES WITH THE EUROPEAN UNION

The creation of a pro-EU government will open the way for Poland to improve the country’s ties with the bloc and with neighbors like Germany, an ally and trading partner which had become a punching bag in recent times for Law and Justice.

One of the biggest aims will be to unlock the billions of euros (dollars) in funding that the EU has withheld from Warsaw over the ruling party’s changes to the judiciary which weakened the independence of the judicial branch of government.

But those funds will not start flowing simply because there will be a different government. First, Poland has to reverse the questionable new rules for the judiciary, which will require the passage of new legislation. Parliament will be able to pass them, but how quickly things will proceed will depend on whether President Duda, who holds veto powers over laws, will cooperate. Duda, whose term runs until 2025, is himself the author of some of the controversial changes in past years.

Tusk’s deputy in their Civic Platform party, Rafał Trzaskowski, said that unblocking EU funds would be the most urgent task for the majority government and that the pace of the process would depend on Duda nominating the new ruling team.

“As soon as the president nominates the new government, the prime minister will travel (to Brussels) and will negotiate with the European Union the unblocking of that money,” said Trzaskowski, who is Warsaw mayor.

PROMISES, PROMISES

The new government will want to remove Law and Justice loyalists from state institutions and state companies, including state TVP which Law and Justice turned into its unrestrained mouthpiece.

The opposition has vowed to put an end to the abuse of power and state resources.

A Third Way leader, Szymon Hołownia, said in a campaign debate that Law and Justice loyalists who thrived like “fat cats” in state jobs should start “packing their litter boxes.”

Tusk has made a promise to heal divisions among Poles that deepened in past years under Law and Justice and to “mend the wrongs.”

He has also promised to “bring to account” and prosecute those government officials who violated the constitution.

Social calm and harmony are among the key things the Poles desire that can be achieved without special effort or expenditure.

Graphic novels are displayed for sale at a bookstore in New York City on Sunday, October 8, 2023. On Tuesday, the Commerce Department releases U.S. retail sales data for September. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)
Graphic novels are displayed for sale at a bookstore in New York City on Sunday, October 8, 2023. On Tuesday, the Commerce Department releases U.S. retail sales data for September. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)

A tricky task will be to maintain Law and Justice’s popular social spending policies and fulfil new campaign promises, all while bringing the overstretched state budget into shape.

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