Poland’s newly elected Parliament torpedoed a long-shot effort by right-wing forces on Monday to stay in power despite losing a general election, opening the way for the opposition leader, Donald Tusk, to take over as leader of the biggest and most populous country on Europe’s formerly communist eastern flank.
Legislators, as expected, rejected a new government proposed by the caretaker prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, whose party, Law and Justice, lost its parliamentary majority in an October election.
As the result was announced, opposition legislators taunted Mr. Morawiecki and his supporters over their defeat, chanting “Donald Tusk, Donald Tusk.”
Mr. Morawiecki, who led Poland’s previous right-wing government, resigned after the election but was asked by President Andrzej Duda, an ally of Law and Justice, to stay on in a caretaker capacity and to try to form a new government.
Critics of Law and Justice denounced Mr. Duda’s move as a last-gasp attempt by the defeated party to prolong its rule and appoint allies to positions in state institutions and companies.
In a final, desperate effort to keep the opposition from taking over, a commission formed by the outgoing government to investigate Russian influence recommended on Nov. 29 that Mr. Tusk and other leading opposition figures not be allowed to hold positions responsible for state security.
The vote in Parliament on Monday, however, ended the defeated party’s efforts to remain in power and left Mr. Tusk, a former prime minister and leader of the main opposition party, Civic Coalition, poised to take leadership of a new government.
After a day of often raucous debate, 266 legislators voted against the government proposed by Mr. Morawiecki and 190 voted for, far short of the majority it needed in the 460-member Sejm, the more important lower house of the Polish Parliament, to hang on.
Mr. Morawiecki, ignoring jeers from opposition legislators and demands from the speaker of Parliament that he stop talking, delayed the vote with a lengthy defense of Law and Justice’s record and pleas that he be allowed to stay in office.
By rejecting Mr. Morawiecki’s proposed government, doomed to fail because of Law and Justice’s electoral defeat, Parliament delivered a grave blow to Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the chairman of the defeated party, Poland’s de facto leader since 2015 and a bitter political enemy of Mr. Tusk.
In a speech to Parliament on Monday morning, Mr. Kaczynski pleaded with legislators to support Mr. Morawiecki, warning that Poland risked losing its independence to the European Union if Law and Justice did not continue governing the country.
Poland, he said, repeating his oft-stated view that the opposition serves foreign, particularly German, interests, would become a “dwelling area for Poles managed from outside from Brussels and in fact from Berlin.” He later lamented that the vote against Mr. Morawiecki and the likely return to power of Mr. Tusk “look like the end of Polish democracy but we hope this will not be the case.”
Many others, however, cheered the end of the deeply conservative party’s rule, including Lech Walesa, a former Polish president and leader in the 1980s of the anti-communist Solidarity trade union movement. A longtime foe of Mr. Kaczynski, who has accused him of collaborating with the communist-era secret police, Mr. Walesa was so eager to witness the demise of Law and Justice that, despite a recent struggle with Covid, he traveled to Warsaw from his home in the port city of Gdansk to witness the vote.
The Polish Constitution gives Parliament the right to nominate a prime minister if the president’s nominee fails to win support from legislators. On Monday evening, supporters of Mr. Tusk in the Sejm submitted a motion nominating the opposition leader as Poland’s new prime minister. Mr. Tusk will now need to win a confidence vote before being sworn in as head of the Polish government, probably on Wednesday.
The installation of a new government headed by Mr. Tusk could be a drastic shift away from Poland’s direction during eight years of Law and Justice rule, a period marked by close relations between the governing party and the Roman Catholic Church and ill-tempered quarrels with the European Union.
Scope for change, however, will be crimped by the grip of Law and Justice appointees on the judiciary, powerful state bodies like the central bank, the national prosecutor’s office, the national broadcasting system and large state-controlled corporations like the energy giant PKN Orlen. Many of those appointments will be hard to reverse.
The outgoing government made clear it had no intention of cutting Mr. Tusk any slack and stuck to wild election campaign smears of the man now set to govern Poland.
Speaking in Parliament on Monday evening, Mariusz Blaszczak, defense minister in the previous government, responded to Mr. Tusk’s nomination as prime minister by denouncing him as a threat to national security who, “completely obedient to Brussels and Berlin,” will “weaken our security and push us to the periphery of Europe.” He also vowed to “defend” public media, drawing jeers from Mr. Tusk’s supporters.
The public broadcasting system, a network of national and local radio and television stations, is stacked with Law and Justice loyalists. TVP, the main state television station, has so far clung to its role as propaganda bullhorn for Law and Justice. Its news coverage is heavily slanted in favor of the former governing party, though it has now curbed somewhat previously incessant denunciations of Mr. Tusk as a traitor.
During a debate before the vote in Parliament rejecting Mr. Morawiecki, opponents of Law and Justice reviled the former governing party for dragging out the transfer of power.
“These entire two months were built on the foundation of bitterness and non-acceptance of the sovereign’s judgment, which removed Law and Justice from power,” said Wladyslaw Kosniak-Kamusz, the leader of a centrist party allied with Mr. Tusk. “This is the end of this bad stage for Poland,” he added.
Mr. Tusk and his allies are divided on the issue of abortion, which was almost completely banned by the previous government, but they share a desire to restore the independence of the Polish judiciary, which was heavily politicized under Law and Justice, and to repair relations with the European Union.
A long and often-vicious election campaign cast a shadow over Poland’s previously robust support for Ukraine as Law and Justice sought to avoid losing votes to a far-right party strongly opposed to helping Kyiv. A new centrist government headed by Mr. Tusk would most likely try to put relations between Warsaw and Kyiv back on track.
To secure a vote of confidence as Poland’s new prime minister, Mr. Tusk, a veteran centrist politician who led Poland from 2007 to 2014, will need support not only from members of Parliament from his own party, Civic Coalition, but also from allied parties. Despite division, they are likely to hang together to ensure Mr. Tusk can take office.
Law and Justice won more votes than any other single party in the October election and proclaimed victory. But its opponents — Mr. Tusk’s Civic Coalition; a leftist grouping, New Left; and a centrist alliance, Third Way — won a clear majority in the Sejm. The opposition also expanded a majority it had in the Senate, the upper house of Parliament.
That simple arithmetic was running against Law and Justice was clear when the new Parliament convened for the first time on Nov. 13 and selected Szymon Holownia, a leader of Third Way, as speaker of the Sejm and rejected a candidate put forward by the previous governing party.
The selection of Mr. Holownia, a former television celebrity, as speaker quickly boosted public interest in previously dull legislative sessions, with subscribers to the Parliament’s livestream of debates on YouTube rising 10 times to nearly half a million. “Stock up on popcorn because I suspect there will be a lot of excitement,” Mr. Holownia recommended.
Anatol Magdziarz contributed reporting.