Remember the heady days of 2019 when Parliament Live got its best ratings ever as we all watched debate after debate, and vote after vote, over which Speaker John Bercow presided? Now Poland is going through the same thing with their own charismatic speaker. In the wings is Donald Tusk as prime minister in waiting. But the Poles have taken it one step further, with a major cinema in Warsaw live-streaming events for “community viewing”. They have dubbed the surge of interest and viewership: “Sejmflix”. Sejm (pronounced ‘same’) refers to Poland’s version of the House of Commons. Tomorrow it all comes to a head.
No, they’re not voting on “Polexit”, though there is a tangential EU element. On 15 October 2023 Poland held a general election and the ruling far-right “Law and Justice” (PiS) won the single biggest vote share but lost their majority. However, a group of parties nominally led by Donald Tusk, former President of the European Council, collectively has the majority of seats. Tusk wasted no time and in the interim has not only negotiated a coalition agreement, but also agreed cabinet seats.
The process to form a new government has taken almost two months because Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, also of the PiS party, has given the sitting prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki as much time as possible to present his cabinet to the Sejm for a vote of confidence. Yesterday was that deadline, and as expected, Morawiecki lost. So last night, the coalition voted in its own candidate for prime minister: Donald Tusk.
‘Sejmflix’ as a symbol of civic engagement
Parliamentary sittings have attracted significant interest since the elections almost two months ago, with record viewers on television and online. The Sejm channel on YouTube currently has over 380,000 subscribers – up from 41,000 in mid-October. Some commentators have suggested watching MPs thrash it out in parliament is now a “national sport”.
It was this interest that led Warsaw’s Kinoteka cinema to stream parliamentary proceedings live. “I saw someone on Instagram joke about us doing this,” explains Karolina Fornal, Kinoteka’s marketing officer, “and I thought this might actually be a good idea. It’s a form of civic engagement. Regardless of people’s motivations, they will come here and know what’s happening in Poland, now and in the future.”
Part of the Sejm’s appeal, suggests journalist Jakub Majmurek, is the new Speaker of the House, Szymon Hołownia, elected last month. A former journalist and TV talk-show host, his biting wit and strict adherence to democratic procedures has made him the Sejm’s star. From ridiculing an MP for mixing up Gen-Z with Jay-Z, to castigating the previous government for breaches in parliamentary procedure, he is being celebrated in his new role, often reminding politicians “to show Poles what good democratic practice looks like”. Sound familiar? Bercow would no doubt approve.
PiS vs the EU
At the heart of the political tug-of-war in Poland has been the ongoing battle over the rule of law, which was severely eroded during the eight years of the PiS government. As a result, the EU withheld significant Covid recovery funds over serious concerns about the politicisation of Poland’s courts. In the time since the elections, tensions have heightened.
The judiciary’s role in the drama is crucial, as judges like Piotr Gaciarek find themselves caught in the crossfire. Gaciarek, suspended in 2021 for challenging the competence of a judge appointed under controversial PiS reforms, represents a larger struggle against the perceived politicisation of the judiciary.
Speaking to the BBC, he explained: “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. They simply wanted to have their own judges, to influence decisions.”
The battle over the courts has implications not only for the rule of law but also for Poland’s ability to access EU recovery funds, impacting issues like education, healthcare, and social spending.
Another area of democratic erosion has been of Poland’s publicly funded media. This too, will sound familiar. It has also been the subject of political interference, as press freedom rankings declined under the PiS government. Tusk’s coalition has promised a radical overhaul, describing it as a “factory of lies and hatred”.
As Tusk stands on the threshold of power, he and his coalition partners understand they have a lot to live up to, after all the promises they made during their campaign. One priority is reversing the judiciary reforms under PiS, removing unlawfully appointed judges and finally enforcing overdue verdicts of the European Court of Justice and European Court of Human Rights, but this will take time.
It’s likely Tusk’s new coalition will begin with low-hanging fruit, such as changes to abortion laws which were tightened in 2021 and activated many women’s groups. They will be expecting Tusk to fulfil his campaign pledge and will push for the legalisation of abortion up to 12 weeks, addressing a contentious issue that has sparked major protests.
The country will be watching
Tusk’s Civic Coalition (KO) is a broad and diverse group of parties with different priorities. Between them they have a majority of 276 seats, easily outnumbering PiS’s 190 seats. With that, as long as they remain in agreement, they will have no difficulty passing new legislation. And they know they will be closely watched by a public that has high expectations.
Under their watchful gaze at the Kinoteka cinema, and across social media, Tusk will this morning present his new cabinet. This afternoon, there will be another vote of confidence which he is expected to win easily. And, finally, tomorrow he should be sworn in, ending the political twilight zone that the country has been in for two months.
As Poland braces for the next political transition, the audience’s eagerness to witness the unfolding drama on the big screen underscores the nation’s commitment to democratic principles and the desire for positive change. Whether the political fever gripping Poland will lead to lasting reforms remains to be seen, but for now, “Sejmflix” continues to dominate the national stage, offering citizens a front-row seat to their country’s political evolution.
Pass the popcorn.