(Bloomberg) -- The barriers protecting the parliament building in Warsaw were already being removed before Poland’s new leadership could complete the job. Ordinary people started to dismantle them, unimpeded by the police. 

Introduced a year or so after the nationalist Law & Justice Party came to power in 2015, the buffer against protesters isn’t needed any more. The party’s pro-European Union opponents are no longer lined up in the street. They’re inside the building, ready to take over this week as the next governing coalition.

With political disruptors on the far right having a moment again, from the Netherlands to Viktor Orban’s Hungary, the return of Poland to the European political mainstream is a bright spot for the EU. But undoing their predecessors’ grip on the organs of state won’t be so straightforward for the parties led by former European Council President Donald Tusk, who is set to be appointed by parliament as prime minister late on Monday.

From state media and the courts to the central bank and some of the country’s biggest companies, critics see Law & Justice as having packed institutions with political appointees whose influence will outlast their electoral defeat. 

They’ve put their stamp on everything from the highest court down to reproductive rights for women which the party turned into some of Europe’s most restrictive. 

The government in Warsaw spent eight years running roughshod over the constitution and weakening its democracy, earning it numerous rebukes from the EU. Brussels is withholding almost €60 billion ($65 billion) of funds because of disputes over the Polish judiciary’s independence. 

“We will act decisively,” Tusk said on Friday after a meeting with his proposed new cabinet. “We have to convince Poland and the world that we are restoring the rule of law.” 

Unpicking Law & Justice’s legacy, though, is no quick task. At risk in this high-wire act is more than just the fate of the the money withheld by the EU. For the Poles who voted to oust Law & Justice, the character of the country’s democracy was on the ballot. Turnout in October’s election was higher than in the 1989 election that ended communist rule. 

Just like in that election more than three decades ago, the rest of the world is paying close attention — particularly those countries undergoing their own experiments with populism. Depending on the complexion of the coalition that will be formed in the Netherlands, even the three-quarters of the Dutch who didn’t vote for Geert Wilders may find themselves with a stake in the question: How do you rebuild a democracy? 

Tusk faces an “unprecedented challenge in rolling back illiberalism,” according to Piotr Buras, the head of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Warsaw. Pointing to state institutions stuffed with Law & Justice appointees and a central bank governor accustomed to doing the government’s bidding, he echoed Tusk: Poland “now needs to work out how to restore the rule of law without violating the rule of law.”

A former Polish prime minister who left for Brussels in 2014, Tusk himself has been divisive at home. The victory for the opposition bloc he led into the Oct. 15 election took many by surprise. 

Pushing through change — whether to loosen abortion laws that led to some of the biggest protests since the end of communism, or taking back control of the state broadcaster — also will likely meet resistance. Some of Poland’s most recognizable television news anchors have already announced their decisions to jump ship.

Then there’s Poland’s president. Andrzej Duda, the Law & Justice loyalist who will remain in office through 2025 as head of state, has promised to block legislation aimed at overturning the outgoing government’s changes to the legal system. Those are the same reforms required to unlock the EU funds.

“In the end, the pace of the reforms will very much depend on president’s determination to cooperate with the new government,” Arkadiusz Myrcha, a member of parliament from Tusk’s Civic Platform party, said in an interview.  

The president has veto power over legislation, and little incentive to help his political foes secure the windfall for Poland’s economy, with European and local elections approaching next year. 

The situation is comparable in the central bank. Governor Adam Glapinski, a Law & Justice loyalist, became an outspoken cheerleader for the party’s economic policy, despite branding his monetary policy “independent like never before.” His six-year term was renewed in 2022.

In September, Glapinski delivered an outsized cut in interest rates that seemed designed to juice the pre-election economy without regard for the consequences. Tusk’s Civic Platform campaigned on the promise of holding him to account. And yet, their attempts had already undergone several false starts before assuming office. 

The special tribunal they first proposed as the mechanism looks complicated by Glapinski’s outmaneuvering. He has already protested to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and European Central Bank against the attempts to suspend him. 

In response, ECB President Christine Lagarde confirmed in a letter dated Dec. 1 that he could refer any potential action to the EU’s top court. An ouster would involve “playing with fire,” Glapinski said at a press conference.

The incoming government looks instead to be trying to slowly build a legal case against him, according to people familiar with the matter. Its initial analysis suggests there may be grounds to pursue the governor over both a 144 billion zloty ($36 billion) bond-buying program and his alleged involvement in the outgoing government’s campaign ahead of the general election, the people said.

Yet even if they succeeded in getting rid of Glapinski, those involved in the attempt are operating under an awareness that it’s not clear what they would gain: if he were deposed, his loyal deputy would take over. Tusk has signaled he won’t rush the decision. 

It’s the judiciary, though, that’s been at the heart of Poland’s dispute with the EU. Tusk’s coalition wants to introduce a package of changes that exceeds what the EU says is necessary to make available the withheld funds, according to people involved in the discussions. They asked not to be named because the talks are private. 

Lawmakers from the new government have been meeting informally with the representatives of legal associations to look at how to roll back the judicial overhaul without violating the constitution. Last week Tusk announced that Adam Bodnar, former human-rights ombudsman and activist, will be the next justice minister.

Poland was fined €1 million a day by the EU’s top court for almost two years after Law & Justice refused to dismantle a contested mechanism for disciplining judges. What’s left is a justice system where thousands of judicial decisions may be questioned and a top court stacked with Law & Justice loyalists. The party has been “absolutely poisoning the Polish justice system,” according to Michal Wawrykiewicz, lawyer at Free Courts Initiative.

“What existed will never return.” said Anna Materska-Sosnowska, political scientist at the University of Warsaw. “We have a unique opportunity to improve the institutions and not to reverse them back to what they used to be.”

--With assistance from Piotr Skolimowski.

(Updates with Tusk appointment timing in third paragraph. An earlier version of this story was corrected to show interest rates were cut.)

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