WARSAW (Reuters) -Former European Council President Donald Tusk is expected to be appointed prime minister of Poland on Monday, signalling a return to the European mainstream after eight years of nationalist rule that critics say saw a backsliding in democracy.
Critics say the Law and Justice (PiS) party undermined judicial independence, turned state-owned media into a propaganda tube and fomented prejudice against minorities like immigrants and the LGBT community.
Poland, an EU and NATO member, has seen an unprecedented level of interest in the workings of the legislature since an Oct. 15 election gave a majority to a broad alliance of pro-European Union parties headed by Tusk.
Subscriptions to the chamber's YouTube channel have skyrocketed since it resumed work to around 463,000 at 1029 GMT on Monday.
Certain sittings have attracted well over a million viewers on the platform and one Warsaw cinema has even decided to put Monday's session on to the big screen, attracting so much interest that around 2,000 people were on a waiting list for tickets.
"READY, STEADY, GO!," Tusk wrote on social media platform X, reflecting the sense of anticipation his supporters felt on a day some have labelled as the most important in Poland since the fall of communism in 1989.
Poland's first democratically elected president after the fall of communism, the Solidarity trade union leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Walesa was in attendance and received a standing ovation from the coalition set to take power.
Dressed in a sweater bearing the word "Constitution", which opponents of PiS wear to show their condemnation of what they say was democratic backsliding under the party's rule, Walesa, 80, had just left hospital after a bout of coronavirus to attend.
PiS came first in the election and President Andrzej Duda, an ally of the party, gave the party the first shot at forming a government.
However, this appears almost impossible as incumbent Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki lacks a majority and all other parties have ruled out working with PiS.
The party's eight years in power have been marked by numerous disputes with the European Union over issues including judicial independence, the rule of law and minority rights, and have led to billions in funds from the bloc being frozen.
EUROPE OF FATHERLANDS
Morawiecki addressed the chamber on Monday, contrasting what he said was a sovereign Poland that provided good living standards under PiS with Tusk's previous term in office from 2007 to 2014.
PiS says that Tusk's liberal policies made Poland subservient to foreign interests and created an economy in which many citizens had no choice but to emigrate in order to earn a living.
"We introduced a new socio-economic model - the first steps in creating a country of solidarity," Morawiecki said.
He also outlined his view of what he thought relations with the EU should look like.
"A Europe of fatherlands, not a Europe without fatherlands - we do not agree to taking away competences from states," he said.
One lawmaker from Tusk's Civic Coalition (KO) grouping stood with her back to Morawiecki as he spoke as a sign of protest.
At around 1400 GMT, Morawiecki will face a vote of confidence which he is almost certain to lose.
The job of selecting a new prime minister will then fall to parliament, where Tusk has the backing of a clear majority. He would then address the chamber on Tuesday.
Poland's October election saw a record turnout of 74% as people in some locations queued for hours to vote.
"Many people... consider what happened in Poland to be a kind of miracle," said Katarzyna Lubnauer, a lawmaker from Tusk's Civic Coalition (KO) grouping, referring to the opposition's success in mobilising voters despite the hostility of state-controlled media.
"Therefore, Poles are interested in what is happening in the parliament, in this change."
Some observers have also attributed the surge in interest to the appointment of a celebrity as speaker of parliament.
Szymon Holownia's wise-cracking approach to running debates has charmed many viewers who first got to know him as the host of a prime-time talent show.
"Szymon Holownia, the star showman, is making it into an appropriate spectacle," said Anna Materska-Sosnowska, a political scientist at Warsaw University.
"He makes fun of people, he jokes, but he does it in a very civilised way."
However, not everyone is impressed.
"From the point of view of a humble parliamentarian I would prefer a speaker who does not completely focus on infotainment," said PiS lawmaker Radoslaw Fogiel.
(Reporting by Alan Charlish, Pawel Florkiewicz, Kuba Stezycki, Anna Koper, Writing by Alan CharlishEditing by Ros Russell)