Following a suspense-packed election thriller, Poland has elected its new president. What seemed like it would be a walkover for the incumbent, Andrzej Duda, turned out to be an attempt to shift the direction of Polish domestic affairs.
The outcome of the Polish presidential election held on 12th July was decided by a very fine margin. The incumbent, Andrzej Duda, coming from the ruling political bloc formed by the Law and Justice (PiS) party was re-elected with 51.1% of the vote while his opponent, Rafał Trzaskowski, representing the opposition party, Civic Platform (PO), secured 48.9%. The difference amounted to fewer than half a million votes.
The outcome of the election revealed more than just a divided country with two mutually hostile political blocs. It was also a kind of ‘popularity vote’ over whether the current policies of the ruling PiS party should be continued, or whether Poland wants a political change. Observers said that it was the most important election since the political transition of 1989. Therefore, it came as no surprise that for weeks the two candidates were involved in an aggressive and unprecedented exchange of blows which also attracted international attention. The incumbent, Andrzej Duda, used anti-German and anti-Semitic sentiments, and agitated against sexual minorities, the LGBT community in particular, in an unsavoury way, claiming that this would protect the traditional Polish Christian way of life.
Poland divided into two political blocs
In spite of there being other political alliances, the Polish political landscape has been dominated by two political parties for years. On the one hand is the Law and Justice (PiS) party, now ruling the country along with two minor parties, United Poland (Solidarna Polska) and Agreement (Porozumienie), forming the United Right coalition. On the other hand is the Civic Platform (PO), which clearly dominates the opposition. The dividing line between these political parties is the same one that divides Poland into two political blocs. Many years of polarisation of the political landscape has resulted in the society being split into two groups: those who identify as beneficiaries of the political transition of 1989, who are economically successful and well educated, speak foreign languages, are oriented towards Europe and want to live in a modern, open-minded country, and those who have not benefited from the political transition of 1989, who flee into traditional values and beliefs, and perceive the modern world as a danger which weakens their own identity. Both political parties support the respective points of view. PiS presents itself as a defender of traditional Poland and an advocate of the simple man, while PO stands for the eloquent, cosmopolitan elite living in big cities who look down on John Doe, the average punter living in the provinces. What sounds like a mere, almost populist simplification is part of the political reality in Poland and translates into how militant the rhetoric is.
New dynamics in the campaign
Before the initial presidential election day planned for 10th May, everything seemed to indicate that the incumbent, Andrzej Duda, would secure a clear victory by a large majority. The more so as, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, people were very much focused on the consequences of the coronavirus crisis and the other 10 candidates were not really able to conduct their election campaigns, quite unlike the incumbent president, who attended his planned meetings, enjoyed the support of the state media and was thus able to activate his voters. What is more, the Civic Platform’s candidate, Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska, turned out to be weak and dull. She also boycotted the election in part due to the coronavirus pandemic. The other candidates performed below their expectations too. The election campaign stagnated until the Civic Platform bloc changed its candidate shortly before the election day was postponed, which had been preceded by a severe government crisis. The liberal conservative Rafał Trzaskowski, who has been the mayor of Warsaw since 2018, introduced a new dynamism to the proceedings. Along with this, the postponing of the election day and the loosening of lockdown restrictions allowed for the campaign to gain momentum.
Continuous discrimination against the LGBT community
The first round of the election featured broad substantive debates, even if domestic policies largely dominated over foreign, European and defence ones, which are actually more important for the office of a state president. In the beginning, the major topics included health care, social and pension policies, as well as economic and environmental issues. Though aspects of these were still present in the second round of the election, the main focus was on the bigger picture, i.e. a vision of society and state constituting the core of the competition between the national conservatives, the moderate conservatives, the liberals and the left. Andrzej Duda’s election staff tried mainly to revive the LGBT issue, which was equated with the sexualisation of children and paedophilia, by reintroducing it in a new form: The president made a proposal to stipulate in the constitution that parents should have the right to decide what extracurricular content is taught in schools, and signed a family charter which accepts and supports only the traditional heterosexual type of family. Rafał Trzaskowski’s team, on the other hand, were doing their best not to present their candidate as a liberal hothead keen on transforming the education system, to praise the popular achievements made by PiS in the area of social policies, and to attack the ruling party for its shameless propaganda on state television directly targeting Andrzej Duda’s opponent. Rafał Trzaskowski presented himself as a family person, a bridge builder, a candidate of all Poles across party lines and beliefs, and a European who thinks in a modern way but still acts like a conservative, opposing the adoption of children by same-sex couples, for instance.
1st round: Duda wins as expected
The outcome of the first round of the presidential election held on 28th June showed that the Poles, in spite of various substantive differences, are still basically divided into supporters and opponents of the current national conservative government. As soon as Rafał Trzaskowski joined the race as a progressive liberal conservative, he came into focus of both the ruling bloc and the voters hoping for change. The incumbent, Andrzej Duda, was the big winner of the first round of the election as expected (43.5%), while Rafał Trzaskowski secured 30.5% despite entering the election campaign late. The big losers who received less than 3% were Robert Biedroń (Left) and Władysław Kosiniak Kamysz (Polish Farmers’ Party). It came as a surprise that the independent candidate, Szymon Hołownia, came third (13.9%) and the far-right Confederation achieved a solid result with its candidate, Krzysztof Bosak (6.8%).
2nd round: An unfair neck-and-neck race
As a result, in the second round of the election held on 12th July, Andrzej Duda faced the Civic Platform candidate, Rafał Trzaskowski. The polls indicated that there would be a neck-and-neck race even though the latter had to win over twelve per cent more of the vote to catch up with his opponent.
In the second round of the election, the candidates immediately started fighting tooth and nail to secure every single vote. The incumbent’s victory was still by far the most likely outcome, but unlike in the preceding years, it could no longer be taken for granted, as already proved by the first round of the election. This was clearly demonstrated by the behaviour of the PiS party leader and de facto head of state, Jarosław Kaczyński: Even before the first round of the election he approached his party colleagues raising the so-called ‘Alarm for Poland’ with the opposition candidate Rafał Trzaskowski in mind. The state television, headed by the fiercely loyal Jacek Kurski, broadcast one material after another discrediting Rafał Trzaskowski, and Jarosław Kaczyński himself, who is the person polarising all political life in Poland, disappeared completely as if Andrzej Duda was really an independent politician representing the Polish state, and not only, as claimed by the opposition, his party leader’s submissive ‘pen’ signing the government’s bills without criticism and thus eagerly helping the government to transform the state. Jarosław Kaczyński reappeared just before the second round of the election and emphasised that those who would not vote for Andrzej Duda and traditional Poland were not worth being called Poles.
Prospects of a change in politics
The two candidates stand for two different versions of Poland and two different world views. The campaign became a mud-slinging match, unleashing a torrent of hatred. The already existing divisions in the society were deepened even more. In the end, a winner has emerged, but the country remains divided. City vs. countryside, West vs. East, modern vs. conservative, educated vs. uneducated, rich vs. poor, future vs. past, European vs. patriotic. At the same time, one can see that the PiS party’s tactic for winning elections (social policies, raising divisive topics to fracture the opposition, massive mobilisation of its own voters) is reaching its limits and the government are running out of ideas. Depending on how the political landscape develops (Civic Platform vs. Left, Confederation, maybe a new movement led by Szymon Hołownia), the next parliamentary election, to be held in three years’ time, might be exciting. Until then, however, PiS is going to do whatever it can to fully implement its programme of state transformation, which includes the continuation of judiciary reforms, the recentralisation of power and the ‘repolonisation’ of the media. All the more so as the party can see that it has reached its full potential in terms of development and almost half of the voters have just chosen to vote for another political option, i.e. for the political change that Rafał Trzaskowski represents. Meanwhile, the opposition candidate has announced that he wants to launch a civic movement.
Hope for young voters
If examined more closely, the high voter turnout, amounting to almost 68% of those entitled to vote, is a sign that Polish society, in spite of some political weariness resulting from the lack of political culture, is again willing to get actively involved and is aware of its ability to make a change. The number of young voters is a positive aspect. Their turnout amounted to 64% and was clearly higher than in 2019 (with 46% during the parliamentary election and 27% during the European Parliament election). All the more so as this group showed different preferences and voted mostly for the opposition candidate. Young people reject the PiS party’s obsession with history, as well as its anti-LGBT battles, and advocate for more European integration and climate protection. They do not share the welfare state orientation and the political and cultural provinciality of the PiS core voters. Andrzej Duda was popular mostly among voters over 50, 61% of whom voted for him.
Numerous headlines read ‘Duda wins in the countryside’, which is correct. The incumbent president went on a tour of Polish villages and small towns where he presented himself as a man of the common people, which paid off. His jovial nature and shortcomings, including his not overly impressive English skills, make him closer to an average Kowalski as compared to the educated and eloquent polyglot Rafał Trzaskowski, who is perceived by many Poles living in the provinces as unfamiliar and conceited. Many people see Andrzej Duda as more approachable, as one of them; a common man who has a more traditional life and has not been successful at everything, who would come to auntie Betty’s birthday party with flowers and join the other guests drinking vodka. This was manifested in the election result. PiS ideological core voters mostly live in the provinces, in villages and small towns, as well as in particular regions (south-eastern, central and eastern Poland). On the other hand, the liberal-conservative opposition has its core voters mostly in big cities; however, it does not dominate its territory as much as PiS dominates its own. In addition, those voting for the opposition are usually wealthier and better educated. Andrzej Duda is popular among farmers and poorly educated people. Interestingly, with Rafał Trzaskowski the Civic Coalition managed to penetrate the provinces, where people mostly watch the state television, to a slightly bigger extent than before. This may not yet be seen in the election result but it surely does make a difference for the future in terms of visibility. During the 2019 election campaigns, one would see almost only PiS posters in small towns in regions such as Mazowsze, Świętokrzyskie or Podlasie, for instance. This time, PO posters were suddenly there as well, which is probably a result of the local ‘dissidents’ plucking up more courage.
Floating voters: potential not to be underestimated
When analysing the outcome of the presidential election, one more aspect remains to be noted: the phenomenon of newly emerging candidates like Szymon Hołownia, who received 13% of the votes cast in the first round of the election. This anti-system phenomenon has been occurring in Polish politics for decades; an emergence (and a relatively quick disappearance) of political formations led by charismatic leaders opposing the corrupt mainstream preoccupied with itself or the past. This was the case for the farmers’ party Self-Defence (Samoobrona, led by Andrzej Lepper) and the League of Polish Families (Liga Polskich Rodzin, led by attorney Roman Giertych) flirting with ultra-right cultural ideas in the 2000s, the left-wing liberal Palikot Movement (Ruch Palikota, led by businessman Janusz Palikot) in 2011 and the right-wing populist Kukiz’15 Movement (Ruch Kukiz’15, led by the rock star Paweł Kukiz) in 2015. All these movements were populist in nature but their existence was justified insofar as they represented the interests of voter groups neglected by the political system (mostly people living in small and medium-sized towns who do not participate enough in social and economic progress and thus show floating potential). The election campaign of the media star Szymon Hołownia combined liberal-conservative ideas with strong green elements and was a clear, relatively progressive and, most importantly, fresh alternative to the well-established players such as the Civic Platform and the Polish Farmers’ Party. Its result reaching 13% did not meet expectations by far (together with the result achieved by the right-wing Confederation, it was more or less what the Kukiz’15 Movement secured in 2015) but it was a good start for a newcomer in politics and his campaign itself attracted significant attention on social media, persuading many young people so far involved only in civic society to get engaged in politics. It remains to be seen whether this will translate into a new movement or at least some (personnel) changes in the opposition parties.
Opening the door for populism in the countryside
The relatively good result achieved by the ultra-right Confederation and its candidate, Krzysztof Bosak, securing 6.78% of the votes cast in the first round of the election caused both surprise and outrage. This right-wing national movement is supported mostly by young men living in the countryside. It was established as a result of the unification of different anti-system groups (the National Radical Camp, the liberal chauvinists led by Janusz Korwin-Mikke, libertarians, conspiracy theorists, anti-vaccinationists and anti-abortionists) which are still competing for dominance within the party. Following a clever strategy, the Confederation managed to enter Polish Parliament (and has been present there since 2019), where it refuses to be won over by PiS, in spite of some similarities as regards their respective political agendas, and from time to time votes alongside the other opposition parties. All of a sudden, its eloquent presidential candidate Krzysztof Bosak, who is extremely popular among young people, was said to be in a position to tilt the balance in the second round of the election. Interestingly, both Andrzej Duda and Rafał Trzaskowski courted his favour in the hope that they could take his voters.
Problems with voting abroad
Following the election, numerous voters, mostly those residing abroad, lodged election complaints regarding irregularities and problems with voting. Poles living abroad experienced difficulties while trying to cast a vote in the UK and Germany, in particular. The voting documents were delivered too late, they did not bear the correct stamps or it was not possible to return them. This occurred in these two countries, where the number of voters is high and Andrzej Duda is relatively unpopular. Moreover, after the first round of the election, observers representing the opposition parties frequently posted about ‘sloppy’ vote counting by the electoral commissions on social media. As a result, the NGOs once again strengthened their actions to promote volunteering as an election observer. In the end, the opposition candidate, Rafał Trzaskowski, secured a clear victory in Germany with 77%.
The anti-German card was played in the election campaign at a relatively late stage. This time, war reparations did not come into focus. Instead, the German media were accused of alleged interference in the Polish election campaign. It all started with a critical article published by the tabloid FAKT (an equivalent of the German BILD-Zeitung) which described the pardon granted by president Andrzej Duda to a paedophile who was allegedly forgiven by his daughter who he had abused (in reality, she urgently relied on him for financial assistance not provided to crime victims by the Polish state ruled by PiS). Numerous high-level representatives of the government proceeded to condemn the alleged ‘German interference’ in the election campaign and once again threatened that the foreign-controlled Polish media market would be ‘reorganised’. A German correspondent based in Warsaw was subject to a personal verbal attack by the incumbent president at one of the election campaign events and his picture was shown in the main news broadcast on state television. He was said to have reported on one occasion that voting for the opposition candidate, Rafał Trzaskowski, would be better for Polish-German relations. The resulting conflict led to diplomatic rifts. A high-level representative of the German embassy was summoned to the Polish Foreign Ministry, and the new ambassador designated by Germany has not been accepted by Poland yet. It remains to be seen to what extent these allegations have affected the relations between the two countries and how they will develop. So far, they have been rather pragmatic, though. Both countries are important trade partners for each other, and they face similar challenges as EU member states.
To sum up, the incumbent, Andrzej Duda, supported by the ruling PiS party achieved a narrow result but it was sufficient to give PiS three more years of power supported by a president close to the government. The party showed that it was capable of securing a majority in spite of the strong polarisation. It showed that it would still pay off to bet on the national rhetoric combined with providing social benefits and dividing people into good and bad Poles, emphasising the contrast between tradition and modernity. The state transformation and the related so-called reforms of the judiciary, culture of remembrance, historiography and interpretation of history, as well as the reorganisation of the media market (the so-called ‘repolonisation’), laws limiting women’s rights and targeting sexual minorities – all this will continue. It is rather unlikely that during his second, and thus last, term, president Andrzej Duda will emancipate himself and follow his own agenda, even if he was conciliatory at the election night event. It will be more interesting to see how the balance of power will develop in the ruling coalition. The small parties with their strong leaders including Minister of Culture Jarosław Gowin and Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro are able to exercise their influence and are assuming some power, which is becoming more and more annoying to the party leader, Jarosław Kaczyński. The good result achieved by the opposition candidate, Rafał Trzaskowski, shows that Polish voters do want change, and that the quasi-absolute power of the ruling PiS party is crumbling. It remains to be seen how the opposition will use this potential of their voters.