Poland's popcorn moment as pro-EU leader Tusk returns to power

2 months ago 26

Donald Tusk speaks with members of the media on the day Poland's opposition parties sing the coalition agreement, in Warsaw, Poland on 10 November 2023.Image source, Reuters

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Donald Tusk's coalition government is likely to get approved later this week

By Sarah Rainsford

Eastern Europe correspondent in Warsaw

They're calling it "Sejmflix".

The daily livestream from Poland's parliament, the Sejm, has become an online hit, drawing hundreds of thousands of viewers for each session. Some top a million.

Soon the latest must-watch series will make the leap to the big screen. Demand to follow key proceedings next week is so high that one of Warsaw's main cinemas, Kinoteka, is showing the whole thing, offering politics with popcorn.

Monday is the deadline for Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki to present his cabinet for a vote of confidence by deputies.

If he fails to get enough support, as expected, parliament will move to approve a coalition government led by Donald Tusk which holds a majority of seats in the Sejm.

Barring any major surprise, Poland should have a new cabinet by mid-week.

The surge of public enthusiasm for tracking the ins-and-outs of political life follows an election in mid-October that saw a record turnout of over 70%.

Democracy is in vogue here, with women and young people particularly engaged.

Many were motivated to vote by stark warnings from the opposition that Poland was backsliding on some of the basic principles of democracy, under a right-wing PiS (Law and Justice Party) government.

Image source, Getty Images

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Hundreds of thousands are following the Polish parliament's livestream for all the latest political twists and turns

The big one is the rule of law.

The EU is still withholding more than €30bn (£26bn; $32bn) in Covid recovery funds because of its concerns about the politicisation of Poland's courts.

Donald Tusk and his coalition partners have promised to make restoring the system's independence a priority. But their ambitions have been stalled.

PiS won more votes than any other party at the election, giving it a first shot at forming a government, and it's taking the maximum time permitted.

But the populist party's eight years running Poland are drawing to a close.

Defending the judges

Piotr Gaciarek hopes that might mean he gets his job back.

For two decades, the judge ruled on criminal cases, including murder and drug smuggling.

For the past two years he's been stuck in a small back office of the giant Warsaw District Court "working with documents", as he puts it.

He was suspended in late 2021 after issuing a legal assessment that a judge was not competent to rule because he'd been appointed after controversial reforms by the PiS government.

As well as being sent to a paperwork purgatory, Judge Gaciarek's salary was docked by 40%.

BBC

"They simply wanted to have their own judges, to influence decisions.

PiS argues that its reforms - which affect how judges are appointed and how they are disciplined - were about shaking up old elites and improving efficiency.

But judges' groups talk instead of the politicisation of the judiciary and a campaign of harassment against those who speak out.

"Most cases are of no interest to the authorities: divorce, theft. But there are those where it's important how the judge rules: against critical journalists, opposition politicians, protesters," Judge Gaciarek argues.

"They simply wanted to have their own judges, to influence decisions."

He was eventually reinstated, after a fight. But he's still not back in his old job.

A letter he showed me from the court's president said he was too busy to be released from his current role, although he says he has about 15 minutes' administrative work a week.

"I'm so frustrated. Poland trained me to try the toughest criminal cases. This is a waste of a major resource."

The battle over the judiciary is costing Poland in other ways.

Without the EU recovery funds, analysts say the new government will struggle to meet promises on raising teachers' salaries, maintaining social spending and improving healthcare, as well as other issues important to voters.

Tusk's coalition has promised reforms to release the cash. But there's no concrete plan and the process is bound to be fraught.

At least 2,000 new judges have been appointed since the contentious reforms, and opinion on whether they should stay in post is divided.

On top of that, PiS-friendly President Andrzej Duda is in office for another two years, with the power to veto any legislative changes.

"But it has to be resolved," Judge Gaciarek insists. "I compare it to going to the doctor and wondering if the surgeon is authorised to treat me. I have to trust that the judicial system is working legally."

Battle for the airwaves

Another headline promise from Team Tusk was a radical overhaul of state media, which it describes as a "factory of lies and hatred".

Talk of a "purge" prompted prominent members of the conservative press to warn of attempts to "completely eliminate free speech".

But under PiS, Poland has slumped in international rankings measuring press freedom.

Radio 357 is living proof of the changes.

The station was launched in January 2021 by staff who resigned or were sacked from public radio's Channel 3, or Trojka, in a battle over political interference.

The last straw was an attempt to ban a song criticising PiS party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, which had surged to the top of the Trojka charts.

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Pawel Soltys was sacked from Polish public radio after defending colleagues who had reported anti-government protests

There were earlier warning signs.

Pawel Soltys, now the boss of 357, describes publicly funded media today as a "propaganda machine". But he says the interference began as soon as PiS were first elected.

Pawel was a journalist at Trojka back in 2016 when two news anchors were demoted to work in the archives, after reporting on anti-government protests.

He defended them, as their trade union representative, and was then sacked himself.

"It was one of the first cases of political interference, but [then] it was getting worse and worse," Pawel told me, in the station's studios beneath a public library in a Warsaw suburb.

"It took a year, before the whole [public media] machine was running to support the government."

Entirely funded by listener donations, Radio 357 is mainly dedicated to music. But Pawel values the fact its news bulletins and current affairs show are free to cover whatever they want.

"On public radio it's not that you can't mention an anti-government protest," he says. "You just have to make sure to say there's a small crowd."

Promises, promises

Assuming Team Tusk eventually start work, the list of promises to fulfil is long.

Women's groups - and women voters - are among the many who will be watching closely, especially for reform of the abortion laws.

Strajk Kobiet has led major protests against a near-total ban on terminations in Poland.

The group's founder, Marta Lempart, told the BBC she expects Donald Tusk to keep his campaign pledge and "do everything possible for legalisation to happen," allowing abortion on demand up to 12 weeks.

Image source, Getty Images

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Marta Lempart, centre, has been leading abortion rights protests in Poland the past few years

The group also wants an end to the harassment and prosecution of people who give advice to women seeking abortion abroad or provide morning-after pills.

"Young people and women brought victory to the government," Marta Lampart says, "so they should not be cheated".

"That would be a clear signal not to engage anymore, ever."

For now, the engagement level is high. Kinoteka says all the free tickets for its screening of parliamentary proceedings on Monday have been snapped up. They are expecting a full house.

The audience there, and across Poland, don't want to be disappointed.

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