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Poland: A new government with a very short shelf life

Jacek Lepiarz in Warsaw
November 28, 2023

Poland's new government was sworn in on Monday. The so-called "Cabinet of experts" with Mateusz Morawiecki at the helm is young and includes more women than ever before. But will it last beyond December 11?

Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki (left) poses with members of his new cabinet after their swearing-in ceremony, Presidential Palace, Warsaw, Poland, November 27, 2023
Poland's new government under Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki (left) was sworn in on Monday afternoonImage: Czarek Sokolowski/dpa/picture alliance

The new speaker of the Polish parliament, Szymon Holownia, certainly did not mince his words. On Tuesday, just a day after Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki's new Cabinet was sworn in, he said, "I like the theater, but I don't always like the program."

President Andrzej Duda's decision to give the party that lost the election the first shot at forming a government and his swearing in of its Cabinet has, according to Holownia, "nothing to do with the civilized standards of democracy, the handover of power and political culture."

He went on to say, "What played out yesterday at the presidential palace should never have happened in the Polish Republic."

Polish President Andrzej Duda (left) speaks to Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki as he shakes his hand and hands him a maroon-colored folder containing the PM's instrument of appointment while people look on in the background, Presidential Palace, Warsaw, Poland, November 27, 2023
President Duda gave Mateusz Morawiecki first shot at forming a government, even though his party lost its parliamentary majority in the electionImage: Czarek Sokolowski/dpa/picture alliance

The swearing-in of Morawiecki's government, said Holownia, was a "slap in the face for democracy."

A swearing-in ceremony like any other?

The swearing-in ceremony at the presidential palace in Warsaw on Monday afternoon occurred like all others since the collapse of communism in Poland 34 years ago.

There were handshakes and smiles, and the prime minister and his ministers took the oath of office, which in Poland almost always ends with the words "So help me God." The president then wished the prime minister every success before the ceremony was rounded off with the obligatory "family photo."

Appearances are deceptive

But the appearance of normality was deceptive. This was not a swearing-in ceremony like all others: Duda had appointed as prime minister a man whose party no longer had a parliamentary majority. Even loyal party allies such as former State Assets Minister Jacek Sasin put Morawiecki's chances of actually getting parliamentary approval for his government at 10%, at best.

The moment of truth will come, at the latest, in 14 days: Morawiecki must face a vote of confidence in parliament by December 11.

"The final act of political theater," summarized the internet platform Onet. "Government has no hope of vote of confidence," ran the headline in the daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza. Opposition lawmaker Michal Szczerba called it a "waste of time."

Clear balance of power

The balance of power in the Polish parliament is clear: While the national-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party is the largest party in parliament, it got only 194 seats in the October election — far short of the 231 seats needed to govern.

Polish President Andrzej Duda speaks into a microphone in front of the EU and Polish flags, Presidential Palace, Warsaw, Poland, November 27, 2023
Polish President Andrzej Duda spoke of a 'watershed moment' during the swearing-in ceremony for the new governmentImage: Czarek Sokolowski/dpa/picture alliance

Morawiecki has repeatedly claimed that he is in talks with interested lawmakers from other parties, but he has so far not revealed the name of a single possible renegade from another party.

No party appears willing to negotiate with PiS

Last week, he officially invited all opposition parties — except for Donald Tusk's Civic Coalition (KO) — to coalition talks.

Both the Christian Democratic alliance Third Way (TD) and the New Left flatly declined Morawiecki's invitation. Together with Tusk's Civic Coalition, the three make up the pro-European, center-left alliance that has declared itself immediately ready to govern.

Although the ultra-right Confederation party did meet with Morawiecki, it did so just to tell him that it would not support his government.

New faces and returning ministers

There are only three former ministers in Morawiecki's new Cabinet. Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak kept his portfolio, Europe Minister Szymon Szynkowski was promoted to the post of foreign minister and former Labor Minister Marlena Malag was appointed development minister.

The remaining ministries went to senior civil servants, most of whom have worked closely with Morawiecki. Dominika Chorosinska, who acted in a soap opera for many years, has been appointed culture minister.

Record number of women

Nine of the 16 ministries are headed by women — a record in Polish politics. Duda spoke of a "watershed moment" for the country. Most of the people around the Cabinet table are in their 40s, and some ministers are even younger.

Members of Poland's new cabinet stand in a line, Presidential Palace, Warsaw, Poland, November 27, 2023
Nine of the government's 16 ministries are headed by women — a record in Polish politicsImage: Czarek Sokolowski/dpa/picture alliance

Speaking on Polish state television, Morawiecki called for support and criticized the opposition for being driven by revenge.

"It is worth searching for that which bonds together rather than that which separates," he said, adding that he hoped there would be "231 righteous people" in parliament to accept his "Decalogue of Polish affairs."

Kaczynski's U-turn

In an interview with the state-run news agency PAP on Monday, PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski said the Cabinet of experts had been his idea.

"The point is that there should not be too many politicians in this government," he said. "We want to show that it is possible to govern differently."

Journalist Jacek Nizinkiewicz begged to differ. "This government is built on a lie," he wrote in the newspaper Rzeczpospolita. "We should be getting new faces and experts," he said. "Instead, we are getting old names and hardly any experts."

Playing for time

Kaczynski wants to squeeze the most out of the time the constitution allows to smooth his party's path to the opposition benches. Lucrative posts are still being handed out to loyal party members and generous subsidies to institutions allied with PiS.

The government has tried — right up to the end — to cushion itself legally and financially against possible interventions by the future government. A change in regulations made on Monday was intended to cement PiS's dominance over the public media it controls.

PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski speaks into a microphone with supporters in the background during a campaign event in the run up to the recent parliamentary election, October 11, 2023
PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski said that his party wants to 'show that it is possible to govern differently'Image: Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto/picture alliance

With local elections in April and European Parliament elections in June, the party is also keen to peddle a narrative that will keep its voters loyal, namely that PiS fought until the bitter end and that the evil opposition, which it contends is controlled by Germany, is to blame for the fact that the successful PiS government was unable to continue its work.

Parliament sets up commissions of inquiry

Despite what many see as Morawiecki's doomed mission to form a government, the center-left alliance is already working flat out in parliament, preparing for the day it can take over the reins of government.

The parliamentary procedure for the provision of state funding for IVF has already been launched. There are also plans to set up three commissions of inquiry on Tuesday. Among other issues, the lawmakers want to find out whether the secret services controlled by the PiS government used Pegasus software to spy on the opposition. Another commission will investigate claims that Polish visas were issued in exchange for cash bribes in Africa and Asia.

The future Polish government with a realistic chance of finding a parliamentary majority, which Donald Tusk will lead, will probably not be sworn in before December 13. Some in the media have suggested that this is an act of revenge by the president. After all, for many Poles, December 13 was the day on which the communist military imposed martial law in 1981.

For his part, Tusk is focussing on more positive associations with this date, declaring, "This is the day on which we celebrate the Feast of Saint Lucy, which symbolizes light in the depths of the dark winter."

This article was originally published in German.

A gray-haired man (Jacek Lepiarz) stands in front of bookcases full of books
Jacek Lepiarz Journalist for DW's Polish Service who specializes in German-Polish subjects