A new political era began Thursday in Poland with the swearing in of a parliament dominated by a right-wing party, signaling a major power shift in the European Union's largest eastern member.
As Poland's president appealed for a polite tone in parliament, the newly elected assembly immediately showed that the political discourse would be anything but cordial. Outgoing prime minister Ewa Kopacz stood up, resigned and unleashed a string of accusations against the incoming ruling Law and Justice party, describing it as "delusional'' and a threat to the democratic achievements of post-communist Poland.
"I warn you not to destroy the foundations of the democratic state,'' Kopacz, of the centrist Civic Platform, told the party's lawmakers. "And if you destroy what Poles have built over the past quarter century, we will do everything to stop you.''
For the first time since Poland threw off communism in 1989, the country has a parliament with no left-wing representation. In another first, a single party won enough votes for a parliamentary majority, putting it in a strong position to push through its policies without having to make compromises with a coalition partner.
Poland's new prime minister will be Beata Szydlo – marking the first time one woman has succeeded another as Poland's leader. Szydlo's reputation for moderation helped bring the party to victory in the Oct. 25 parliamentary election. It is to be sworn in in the coming days, but no date has been set.
Rooted in the anti-communist Solidarity movement, Law and Justice mixes traditional Catholic values with promises to strengthen the state to fight corruption. It also favors a greater state role in the economy; during the campaign it promised to lower the retirement age and increase state spending to help families, the poor and the elderly.
Law and Justice governed the country from 2005 to 2007, a turbulent time marked by efforts to purge the country of corruption and the influence of former communists. But critics said it went too far, sometimes abandoning due process in its zeal. Many critics now worry that the country could follow the example of Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has eroded many of the nation's democratic guarantees.
Kopacz accused Law and Justice of already breaking election promises, and suggested that the party poses a risk to state finances, the independence of the judiciary, women's rights and the inviolability of private property. She said her Civic Platform, now the country's largest opposition party, would act as a watchdog.
She also boasted of what her party achieved in its eight years in power, citing job creation, the building of preschools and motorways, and the stabilization of state finances.
"We had it easy because we compared ourselves with the achievements of Law and Justice when it governed from 2005 to 2007,'' she said in a speech laced with sarcasm.
"If the new authorities lead us from the West to the East, if they lead us from Europe onto their delusional path, then Civic Platform will have a map ready for returning to normality, to civic freedom, to everything which now seems natural.''
Law and Justice is strongly pro-U.S. and pro-NATO, but more skeptical of the European Union than Civic Platform. Many of its members are deeply critical of Russia.
Party chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski lost his identical twin brother, President Lech Kaczynski, in a plane crash in Russia in 2010, something that has added to an already strong distrust of Russia by many party veterans.
On Monday, Szydlo announced the makeup of her Cabinet, which is facing some criticism for including many party veterans with a reputation for hard-core and radical ideas.
The most controversial is the new defense minister, Antoni Macierewicz, who has promoted a conspiracy theory that the 2010 plane crash that killed President Kaczynski and 95 others was an assassination masterminded by Russia. State investigations in Russia and Poland determined that it was an accident.
The new parliament also elected its speaker Thursday, choosing a Law and Justice member, Marek Kuchcinski, for the prominent role in Poland's politics.