By Daniel Tilles
Almost two months after winning a parliamentary majority in October’s elections, a coalition of three groups – the centrist Civic Coalition (KO), centre-right Third Way (Trzecia Droga) and The Left (Lewica) – has formed a new government, ousting the national-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party that has ruled Poland since 2015.
The new cabinet was presented by the prime minister, Donald Tusk, on Tuesday morning and won a vote of confidence in parliament later the same day. It will now be formally sworn in by President Andrzej Duda on Wednesday morning.
Incoming PM @donaldtusk has presented the programme of his proposed government and ministers who will serve in it ahead of a confidence vote later today.
He pledged to mend relations with the EU, restore the rule of law, and improve access to abortion https://t.co/5ggvoAOxPS
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) December 12, 2023
Below, we present profiles of each of the incoming ministers and outline some of the challenges they will face. In each case, we have listed their age, role in the new government and political affiliation
The new ministers represent multiple parties from the three main blocs: KO has 14 ministers, who come from Civic Platform (PO), Modern (Nowoczesna) and Polish Initiative (Inicjatywa Polska); Third Way has seven ministers shared between the Polish People’s Party (PSL) and Poland 2050 (Polska 2050); and the New Left (Nowa Lewica) – which is part of The Left – has four.
Donald Tusk, 66, prime minister (PO/KO)
Tusk, the former president of the European Council, will need little introduction to international audiences. Indeed, his return as prime minister is likely to be welcomed in Brussels and other major EU capitals, bringing an end to eight years of spikey relations with the PiS government.
Tusk will undoubtedly improve those relations, seeking compromise where PiS sought confrontation, and aiming to roll back the judicial reforms that saw Brussels repeatedly clash with Warsaw.
However, he will also be no pushover. Poland is a different country now to the one Tusk previously led in 2007-14: stronger, richer, more confident. Its role has become even more important since the outbreak of war in Ukraine. Tusk may be a europhile, but he will also represent Polish scepticism on issues such as deeper EU integration (which he recently called “naive euro-enthusiasm”)
Poland’s main two parties, PiS and PO, have declared they will oppose proposed EU reforms in the European Parliament this week.
PO leader @donaldtusk today warned that the plans represent the kind of „naive euro-enthusiasm” that caused Brexit https://t.co/4SoNVxaSKQ
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) November 21, 2023
All the more so because he and the coalition of parties he leads are facing three more election campaigns within the next 18 months: local and European elections next year, and a presidential election in 2025. Tusk may himself even seek to stand in the latter. It will be vital for him, therefore, to be seen to stand up for Poland’s interests in the international arena.
He is also unlikely to have much of a honeymoon with the Polish public. Opinion polls have repeatedly shown little enthusiasm for him personally, including one last week that found just 10% of Poles think he will be an “excellent” prime minister while 30% believe he will be “terrible”.
Tusk will also face difficulties in maintaining unity and among what is a very diverse coalition that he leads, ranging form the socially liberal hard left to the conservative centre-right.
What kind of prime minister will Donald Tusk be?
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) December 8, 2023
Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz, 42, deputy prime minister and defence minister (PSL/Third Way)
Despite his relatively young age, it feels like Kosiniak-Kamysz has been around forever. He is a veteran of Tusk’s previous government, becoming labour minister in 2011 aged just 30. Four years later, he became the leader of PSL, a position he has maintained since then despite some underwhelming electoral performances.
Kosiniak-Kamysz has thrived in part by getting along with everyone. Indeed, even outgoing PiS Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki – in a desperate attempt to keep his party in power – suggested last month that he would be willing to serve in a government headed by the PSL chairman.
However, his new role at the defence ministry will require some tough decisions. PiS has embarked on an unprecedented military spending spree, which started before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but accelerated afterwards. It raised defence spending this year to 4% of GDP, the highest level in NATO.
The opposition have often expressed concern about how some of that money was being spent, although remained careful not to question the idea that Poland should bolster its defences. Kosiniak-Kamysz may face pressure from elsewhere in the new government to cut back some of that spending, though any such move could be political gold for PiS.
Two leaders of Poland’s incoming ruling coalition say the new administration could cancel arms deals signed by the outgoing government in its final weeks in office.
That includes a $2.6 billion deal with South Korea to purchase howitzers https://t.co/Zpz5BRczfu
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) December 12, 2023
Krzysztof Gawkowski, 42, deputy prime minister and digital affairs minister (New Left/Left)
The second deputy prime ministerial role was given to The Left, to reward the third of the three umbrella groups that form the coalition. They have put forward Gawkowski, who has served as head of The Left’s parliamentary caucus since 2019 but is not a particularly high-profile figure.
It is unlikely that Gawkowski will be very prominent in the new government, especially given that he will be running one of the less important ministries.
Radosław Sikorski, 60, foreign minister (PO/KO)
In recent years, PiS has appointed low-profile figures as foreign minister, with foreign policy often effectively run out of the prime minister’s office or party headquarters.
But Sikorski is a genuine heavyweight: experienced, well connected, an Oxford-educated fluent English speaker. He served in the same role for seven years in Tusk’s last government and as defence minister during a PiS-led government in 2005-7 (though is now an ardent opponent of his former party).
Like Tusk, Sikorski will undoubtedly mend fences with Poland’s European partners. But there are questions over relations with the US. PiS developed close ties with Washington under both Trump and Biden.
By contrast, in 2014 secret recordings emerged of Sikorski – then foreign minister – saying that “the Polish-American alliance is worthless” and indeed “harmful because it gives Poland a false sense of security”. He also made vulgar remarks likening Poland’s approach to “giving the Americans a blowjob”.
Last year, he was widely criticised for a tweet in which he suggested that the US was responsible for blowing up the Nord Stream gas pipeline. A printout of his post ending up being waved at the UN by Russia’s ambassador.
Relations are likely to remain cordial under the Biden administration. But a possible return of Trump to the White House in 2025 could cause strains given that the new Polish government, unlike its right-wing populist predecessor, is not ideologically aligned with the Republicans.
Adam Bodnar, 46, justice minister (nonpartisan senator elected as KO candidate)
Bodnar served as Poland’s commissioner for human rights from 2015 to 2021, a role that brought him to prominence in particular due to his regular conflict with PiS during that time. A legal scholar, Bodnar often clashed with the former government over the rule of law.
As a politician, however, Bodnar is a novice. When he successfully stood for the Senate in October, it was the first time he had ever been a candidate in elections. He is going to have little time to bed in, after being handed what may be the toughest brief in the new government.
Poland’s human rights commissioner @Adbodnar spoke with us about:
– why „Poland is no longer a constitutional democracy”
– his disapproval of both a radical new form of LGBT activism and the authorities’ response to it
– claims he is an opposition ally https://t.co/Hpx1gElvFL
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) August 24, 2020
The incoming government have pledged to undo most aspects of the judicial overhaul undertaken by PiS.
But disentangling eight years of complex reforms is going to be difficult, both not only technically – how, for example, to deal with the over 2,000 judges appointed by the unlawfully reformed National Council of the Judiciary and the tens of thousands of rulings they have issued – but also politically: President Duda can veto any bills passed by the new parliament while the continued (legally appointed) majority of PiS-nominated judges on the constitutional court can also overturn laws.
The decision to put the justice ministry in the hands of a relatively non-political figure suggest an intention to depoliticise the courts. However, PiS will argue that that simply means putting power over the judiciary back in the hands of judges who are inherently biased in favour of the new ruling coalition and against PiS.
Moreover, Tusk made clear in his parliamentary speech today that part of Bodnar’s role will be to hold the former PiS government to account by ensuring that “corruption, abuse of power and the destruction of Polish institutions does not go unpunished”. That process is likely to be highly political.
Andrzej Domański, 42, finance minister (PO/KO)
The new finance minister is another political novice never previously involved in politics. Domański, an economist, is not a familiar name or face to most Poles – indeed, at the time of writing, he does not even have an entry on Wikipedia.
But he was seen as a key figure in KO’s election campaign this year, having authored its economic programme. He himself ran in the elections under the slogan: “Andrzej Domański – the economy guy”.
Już w najbliższą niedzielę startuję do Sejmu z Warszawy. Dlaczego? Bo w Sejmie potrzebni są ludzie znający się na gospodarce. O jaką gospodarkę będę walczył?
✅ Przyjazną przedsiębiorcom – dzięki jasnemu i stabilnemu systemowi podatkowemu
✅ Konkurencyjną – dzięki transformacji… pic.twitter.com/Ba2NJZG3zi
— Andrzej Domański (@Domanski_Andrz) October 12, 2023
Domański will face a difficult balancing act in his new role. Whereas PO was traditionally a fairly free-market party, the popularity and success of PiS’s social spending policies has forced virtually all other parties to promise to keep them.
Yet there are concerns that, in less propitious economic circumstances, those handouts may be harder to afford, while the new government also has its own spending promises to deliver. So Domański may face pressure from parts of KO and also the economically liberal Poland 2050 to rein in social spending.
Barbara Nowacka, 48, education minister (Polish Initiative/KO)
In 2020, PiS combined the schools and universities briefs into a single ministry – led the ultraconservative figure of Przemysław Czarnek – but the new government has now separated them again.
Under Nowacka, a longstanding women’s rights campaigner who was previously associated with the left, we can expect a radical change in many aspects of education policy.
Whereas PiS clamped down on sex education and sought to protect children from what it called “LGBT ideology”, Nowacka – who is also a prominent supporter of LGBT rights – will reverse those policies and pursue a progressive agenda.
The likely new ruling coalition has chosen a children’s rights commissioner.
While the conservative incumbent has opposed LGBT “ideology” and was accused of endorsing spanking children, his replacement supports LGBT rights and opposes corporal punishment https://t.co/YooThTy0A8
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) December 1, 2023
But the new minister will also face many of the same challenges as PiS, in particular finding the money to improve the underfunded education system – not least to pay for the 30% increase in teachers’ salaries that Tusk has pledged to introduce in its first 100 days.
KO also made the unusual pledge to end homework for primary school pupils (who in Poland are aged up to 14). While that would no doubt be popular with children and parents, it would require more teaching and schoolwork to be done in school itself – again, requiring funds and other resources.
Izabela Leszczyna, 61, health minister (PO/KO)
Leszczyna is another veteran of Tusk’s previous government, having served as deputy finance minister from 2013-15.
She is an unusual choice for health minister, given that since the year 2000 every person to hold that role in Poland on a permanent basis has been a qualified medical doctor (or in one case the former head of the state health fund).
Like previous incumbents, Leszczyna will face the perpetual challenges of running an underfunded, understaffed and often outdated healthcare system that Poles constantly name in surveys as one of their greatest concerns but which successive governments have failed to significantly improve.
Just over half (51%) of Poles use both public and private healthcare services, the highest figure ever recorded.
Only 24% exclusively use public healthcare – a record low – while 11% rely only on private providers https://t.co/uUshVwDjEv
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) August 29, 2023
Paulina Hennig-Kloska, 46, climate and environment minister (Poland 2050/Third Way)
A former MP for Modern, Hennig-Kloska was one of the first members of parliament to defect in 2021 to the newly formed Poland 2050.
Her ministry is now set to take a much more central role than it did under the coal-friendly PiS, when it was often accused of harming the environment, for example by approving logging in Białowieża Forest and failing to prevent pollution of rivers.
The new government’s coalition agreement contains clear commitments to counteracting man-made climate change, including by boosting renewable sources of energy. It also pledges to improve the protection of Poland’s natural environment, such rivers and forests.
But those ambitions, and Hennig-Kloska’s role in them, have got off to a bad start after the coalition was forced last week to withdraw legislation loosening rules on building wind farms after concerns it would allow the requisition of private land to build turbines. The coalition insisted that was not the case, but said it would work further on the bill before resubmitting it.
The episode – which amounted to the government’s first crisis before it had even taken office – was a cautionary tale in how difficult it will be for a diverse coalition, containing many political novices, to rule. It also showed how PiS will play a role as a strong opposition to the new government.
The incoming ruling coalition has withdrawn legislative proposals to loosen rules on the building of wind farms after the plans drew criticism from the outgoing government and prosecutors yesterday launched an investigation into them https://t.co/CR0SIr4OFh
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) December 6, 2023
Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz, 62, culture and national heritage minister (PO/KO)
Another Tusk veteran who served as interior minister in 2013-14, when he was, like Sikorski, another ”star” of the secret recordings that emerged in 2014, in which he was infamously heard telling the central bank chief, over a luxurious meal of octopus, cognac and other delicacies, that “the Polish state [only] exists theoretically, it practically doesn’t exist”.
Sienkiewicz has not previously been active in the field of culture (though he is the great-grandson of one of Poland’s greatest writers, Henryk Sienkiewicz). One recent media report suggested that Sienkiewicz is only a short-term appointment, with Tusk tasking a trusted ally to quickly clean up issues left behind by PiS before then standing in next year’s European elections.
That will in particular involve overseeing the “depoliticisation” of public media, which were turned into a PiS mouthpiece over the last eight years. However, given that Poland’s state broadcasters have always to some extent been under the influence whichever parties are in power, many will see this process not as depoliticisation but simply as a new form of politicisation.
A prominent figure from state TV admits they produced „worse propaganda” than under communism to support the ruling party’s election campaign.
But he thinks this „Stalinist logic” backfired and contributed to the negative outcome of the election for PiS https://t.co/8CsLIeVgNz
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) October 18, 2023
Borys Budka, 45, state assets minister (PO/KO)
Budka was one of the figures who unsuccessfully led PO during its wilderness years from when Tusk left for Brussels in 2014 until his triumphant return in 2021. After stepping aside to make way for Tusk, Budka then served as head of KO’s parliamentary caucus.
The position he is now taking up is an important one, given the size and influence of Poland’s state-owned firms, many of which are among the largest companies in Poland. Moreover, over the last eight years, management positions at many of those firms have been filled with political appointees linked to PiS and the firms themselves have often been used to support the ruling party’s agenda.
At the top of Budka’s list will be state energy giant Orlen. The firm has expanded rapidly in recent years as PiS sought to turn it into an international player. This year it became one of the largest 50 firms in Europe.
But under the leadership of CEO Daniel Obajtek, a former small-town mayor linked to PiS, it has also been extremely close to and supportive of the ruling party – including buying dozens of local newspapers that have been used to promote the government’s agenda.
Poland’s largest company, state energy giant Orlen, lost nearly 8% of its market value on Wednesday amid plans by the likely next government to hit the firm with a special tax.
The outgoing ruling party accused them of deliberately tanking Orlen’s value https://t.co/nd6m53VCk1
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) November 30, 2023
Beyond the politics, Budka will also face the challenge of overseeing the state energy sector’s difficult move away from fossil fuels – especially coal – and towards a greener future, a process that has begun under PiS.
Marzena Czarnecka, age unknown, industry minister (nonpartisan)
A surprise appointment to lead a brand-new ministry, Czarnecka has such a low public profile that even her age is unknown. A legal scholar who has headed the department of energy transformation at the University of Katowice – the capital of Silesia, Poland’s coal heartlands – she will head a ministry established in the same city. It will be the only government department outside the capital.
Along with Hennig-Kloska and Budka, Czarnecka will play a key role in overseeing Poland’s transition away from coal. While locating her ministry in a mining region seems like a smart symbolic move, it remains to be seen whether an academic – even one who is from the region herself – is the right person to deal with Poland’s powerful mining unions.
Marcin Kierwiński, 47, interior minister (PO/KO)
A longstanding PO loyalist, Kierwiński has served as the party’s secretary-general since 2020. Not a particularly prominent public figure, he will be seen as a safe pair of hands at the interior ministry.
As in other areas of governments, one of his first tasks will be root out the influence of PiS in the uniformed services, especially the police, which has been seen as serving the outgoing ruling party’s interests. Last week, the national chief of police, Jarosław Szymczyk, who has held the role since 2016, decided to go into retirement ahead of the arrival of the new government.
Tomasz Siemoniak, 56, security services coordinator (PO/KO)
Another veteran of Tusk’s previous government, in which he served as defence minister from 2011-15, Siemoniak will be charged with overseeing another area of government regarded as having been politicised by PiS.
In particular, the former government was accused of using Pegasus spyware to spy on opposition figures, including KO’s 2019 election campaign manager. The incoming coalition has pledged that investigating those claims will be one of its priorities.
Spyware has been used in Poland to „systematically surveil the opposition” in order to „keep the government in power”, an EU report has found.
„The information harvested is used in smear campaigns through government-controlled state media,” it adds https://t.co/xlrZ0O8Qe4
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) May 10, 2023
Agnieszka Dziemianowicz-Bąk, 39, minister for family, work and social policy (New Left/Left)
Dziemianowicz-Bąk is a rising star of the Polish left, having established herself as a polished and effective media performer. An expert in education – her PhD thesis was titled Reproduction – Resistance – Empowerment: a radical critique of education in contemporary Western social thought – she was at one stage tipped to head the education ministry.
As with other ministers from The Left, Dziemianowicz-Bąk – a vocal advocate of advancing women’s and LGBT rights – will pursue a progressive social agenda in her new role, at least to the extent that more conservative elements of the coalition allow them to.
Czesław Siekierski, 71, agriculture minister and rural development (PSL/Third Way)
The oldest member of the new government, Siekierski is a veteran politician first elected to parliament in 1997. However, other than a stint as deputy agriculture minister in 2001-3, he does not have experience in government.
Long active in agriculture – his asset declarations show he owns a 1983 Ursus C-330 tractor inherited from his father – he will be tasked with rebuilding relations with farmers, a group traditionally supportive of PiS but who have clashed with the government in recent years, in particular over Ukrainian grain imports.
Given the more pro-EU stance of the new coalition, balancing the interests of Polish farmers with the demands of European partners may be even more difficult for the incoming government than it was for PiS, which was happy, for example, to introduce unilateral bans on Ukrainian grain in contravention of EU trade rules.
Poland has reiterated that it will unilaterally block the import of Ukrainian grain if the EU does not extend a ban due to expire this week.
„Regardless of what Brussels officials decide, we will not open our borders,” says the prime minister https://t.co/b9D95r1pUX
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) September 12, 2023
Adam Szłapka, 39, EU affairs minister (Modern/KO)
EU relations will be entrusted in part to Szłapka, the leader of Modern. However, as a relatively young, low-profile figure, Szłapka is unlikely to have much of a role in shaping foreign policy, which will be the domain of Tusk and Sikorski.
Dariusz Klimczak, 43, infrastructure minister (PSL/Third Way)
Another fairly low-profile party man, Klimczak will, however, have a lot on his plate. PiS has launched a number of large-scale infrastructure projects, in particular a planned “mega-airport” and transport hub in central Poland, as well as a container port in Szczecin.
The incoming coalition has promised to review all such spending plans, and has long expressed scepticism about the airport plans in particular. However, backing out of projects that are at an advanced stage – the airport already has design plans and international investors in place – may be difficult and would also be exploited politically by PiS.
PiS has long argued that the opposition represent German interests, including Berlin’s desire to prevent Poland from developing economically. Any decision by the new government to backtrack on big infrastructure projects will be presented by PiS as evidence of its claims.
A Franco-Australian consortium has been named as the investment partner in Poland’s planned „mega-airport”. It will contribute up to €1.8 billion
But the likely new opposition government has expressed scepticism about the project and pledged to review it https://t.co/Cp0mSWSz2O
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) October 24, 2023
Sławomir Nitras, 50, sports and tourism minister (PO/KO)
A loyal PO foot soldier, Nitras is a long-serving MP and MEP but has no executive experience. He has been handed one of the minor ministries, though may play a prominent role if the new government pursues the bid launched under PiS this year for Poland to host the 2036 Summer Olympics. Known for his combative attitude and controversial statements, Nitras is also likely to maintain a relatively high profile.
Krzysztof Hetman, 49, development and technology minister (PSL/Third Way)
Hetman previously served as a deputy regional development minister from 2007-10 in Tusk’s former government. Not a big name, he is likely to be tasked with implementing policy rather than making it.
Katarzyna Pełczyńska-Nałęcz, 53, minister for funds and regional policy (Poland 2050/Third Way)
An academic and former think tanker, Pełczyńska-Nałęcz served briefly as a deputy foreign ministry in 2012-14 and then as Poland’s ambassador to Russia from 2014-16. She was an early figure to join Szymon Hołownia, founder and leader of Poland 2050, working on his presidential election campaign in 2020.
One of her key roles will be helping unblock and then spend Polish EU funds that were frozen under PiS due to Brussels’s rule-of-law concerns.
Dariusz Wieczorek, 58, minister of science (New Left/Left)
Wieczorek, who has served as an MP since 2019, is a little-known figure. Indeed, since news emerged that he was likely to become a minister, most Polish media reports have focused on the fact that he is the drummer in a heavy metal band, Vinders, that was active in the 1980s and then reformed in 2009.
Wieczorek has no previous involvement in science or higher education. As with Nowacka and the school system, he will be tasked with undoing what the new government sees as the politication of universities under PiS.
Katarzyna Kotula, 46, minister for equality (New Left/Left)
In this newly created role, Kotula – a former child tennis prodigy and English teacher who has served in parliament since 2019 – can, like other ministers from the left, be expected to pursue a progressive social agenda.
Marzena Okła-Drewnowicz, 51, minister for senior affairs (PO/KO)
Another newly created position that reflects the growing challenges Poland faces as one of Europe’s fastest-ageing societies. Okła-Drewnowicz is a deputy leader of PO and has served in parliament since 2007, including most recently as deputy chair of the senior affairs committee, but until now was not a prominent figure
Agnieszka Buczyńska, 37, minister for civil society (Poland 2050/Third Way)
Another former member of Hołownia’s 2020 presidential campaign staff, Buczyńska’s previous professional career was focused on the NGO sector. She becomes a minister despite only being elected to parliament for the first time in October. Her position is another newly created one and reflects the new government’s promise to involve civil society more in the decision-making process.
Buczyńska was among those standing on stage with Gdańsk’s mayor, Paweł Adamowicz, in 2019 when he was stabbed to death during a charity concert. She later told Gazeta Wyborcza that that “nightmare” was one of her motivations to enter politics and “oppose the language of hatred”.
Jan Grabiec, 51, minister without portfolio and head of prime minister’s chancellery (PO/KO)
Another loyal party man, Grabiec has been PO’s spokesman since 2016. Under a quirk of Polish politics, the prime minister’s chief of staff also holds ministerial rank.
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Main image credit: EU2017EE Estonian/Flickr (under CC BY 2.0)
Daniel Tilles is editor-in-chief of Notes from Poland. He has written on Polish affairs for a wide range of publications, including Foreign Policy, POLITICO Europe, EUobserver and Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.