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Poland elects new prime minister, ending right-wing party's rule

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Today in Poland, a vote in parliament ended eight years of rule by the right-wing Law and Justice Party, heralding a historic transfer of power. Today's parliamentary proceedings were so anticipated that hundreds watched them on the big screen in one of Warsaw's biggest cinemas. NPR's Rob Schmitz joined them.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: At Warsaw's Kinoteka theater inside the city's massive Soviet-era Palace of Culture and Science, audiences can choose from Ridley Scott's biopic about Napoleon, Scorsese's "Killers Of The Flower Moon" or Hollywood's latest reincarnation of Willy Wonka. But today's big-ticket show was Poland's parliament.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATEUSZ MORAWIECKI: (Speaking Polish).

(LAUGHTER)

SCHMITZ: This feature had it all - heroes, villains, laugh-out-loud flashes of comedy and the tragedy of defeat, all of it broadcast live from just blocks away.

LUKASZ KARAS: (Speaking Polish).

SCHMITZ: "I'm glad I came," says Lukasz Karas, an IT worker in Warsaw. He says people are laughing, clapping and booing whenever the outgoing prime minister utters a lie. I didn't expect it to be this fun. Karas, who also plays bass in a punk band and sports a green mohawk, eats from a tub of popcorn. It's 11:30 in the morning, and he's heading to the concession counter to buy his fifth beer. Watching Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has made Karas thirsty, and it's reminded him how much he despised the Law and Justice-led government.

KARAS: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: "They nearly ruined our democracy," he says. "They brought it all down, and it'll take years to rebuild. They're fascists," he scowls.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MORAWIECKI: (Speaking Polish).

SCHMITZ: Inside the theater, Morawiecki is finishing his speech, advising the next government that it needs to stick to democratic norms. This coming from a man who the European Union says oversaw the dismantling of Poland's democratic institutions, is, to this audience, like an Oscar-worthy performance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MORAWIECKI: (Speaking Polish).

(LAUGHTER)

SCHMITZ: Repairman Tomasz Wilczak compares Morawiecki to another character on the big screen.

TOMASZ WILCZAK: I don't know. It's like Pinocchio.

SCHMITZ: Wilczak says it's therapeutic to watch Law and Justice's final hours of rule over Poland with others.

WILCZAK: (Speaking Polish).

SCHMITZ: "Their policies have taken a toll on my mental health," he says. "We've all paid an emotional price for this government." Wilczak says the turnout today - two movie theaters filled with people in their 20s - shows his generation's impact. In past elections, young people were too cynical to vote, he says, but nearly 70% of those under 30 turned out this time - people like Justyna Pelc, who increasingly felt helpless as a woman due to Law and Justice's near-complete ban on abortion.

JUSTYNA PELC: I wanted to live abroad, and that was one of the reasons because I couldn't see my future in my own country. And I think this is very sad. And this was the similar case for many my friend.

SCHMITZ: In the meantime, she's sitting with a box of popcorn, watching the transfer of power.

PELC: Actually, I think that watching this together is, like, amazing experience to see people that also care.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MORAWIECKI: (Speaking Polish).

SCHMITZ: Back in the theater, the audience has sat through hours of parliamentary debate, and outside, the sun has gone down. It's also setting on the government of Prime Minister Morawiecki as he makes final comments, paving the way for a vote of no confidence. The vote results appear on the silver screen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MORAWIECKI: (Speaking Polish).

(APPLAUSE)

SCHMITZ: After eight years in power, the Law and Justice government is no more.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in Polish).

SCHMITZ: It's the end of an era. It's the finale of today's six-hour epic. Eat your heart out, Scorsese. And the audience rises to its feet in unison, chanting their final words to Law and Justice - do widzenia, goodbye.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in Polish).

SCHMITZ: Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Warsaw. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.