Desperately close: how a liberal pro-European almost became the President of Poland

, by Jan Sztanka-Tóth

Desperately close: how a liberal pro-European almost became the President of Poland
Rafał Trzaskowski lost narrowly to the incumbent Duda last night. European People’s Party via Flickr.

It’s done. After long queues in holiday destinations, record voter participation, and a contentious and controversial campaign, the Polish Presidential elections are behind us. But what do the results mean for Poles, and for Europe as a whole?

It was a long and intense election night. The neck-and-neck between incumbent conservative Andrzej Duda of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), and liberal-minded current mayor of Warsaw and former Member of the European Parliament Rafał Trzaskowski, continued past dawn. After considerable lack of clarity from the exit polls, which put Duda ahead by a tiny 0.8%, his victory is now certain with 99,98% of the votes counted. His lead has grown to 2.42% which is still a very slim majority: it’s an unprecedented close call for Poland, especially after such a high turnout of approximately 67.7%.

Most interesting here is probably the marked difference between how younger and older people voted. According to the exit poll, 18-29 year olds voted decisively for the liberal-minded, pro-European Rafał Trzaskowski with 64.4%, while only 35.6% cast their ballots for Duda. In the meantime, 60+ voters overwhelmingly supported Duda with 61.7% of their votes versus only 38.8% for Trzaskowski. More details on the breakdown of the vote and on the geographical distribution can be found here.

The Law and Justice (or PiS) party is set to hold its grip on power for at least until 2023, when the next parliamentary elections will be held. The result may be mind-boggling to some, especially if we consider the last five years of the Duda presidency. To sum up, he has been reelected after flouting the constitution, which he swore to defend, on multiple occasions; signing almost every bill approved by the Sejm, the lower parliamentary chamber, which he is employed to scrutinise, and failing to utter cohesive sentences in English, while trying to fulfil his representative duties abroad. The last one, although not as serious, had significant comedic value for supporters of the opposition, since during the World Economic Forum, Duda was visibly struggling to communicate during an open discussion, an instant which became a meme throughout the country. It might therefore be surprising that such a track record can lead to re-election. Welcome to Poland, I guess.

If we consider the reasons behind this result, the electorate’s disregard for the faults outlined above can at least partially be explained. His campaign was greatly aided by TVP (the Polish state TV station), which functioned as his primary propaganda machine. His message of “keeping Polish tradition” and his conservative remarks on the LGBT community primarily aimed to attract rural voters. Additionally, the short campaign of the opposition candidate, who had only 3 months to build his image, was insufficient to properly reach across the aisle, and offer an alternative for the same countryside electorate. Finally, the extended social programs which PiS introduced namely the 500+ program (which essentially gave every family 500 zl a month for every child), and the 13th pension (an additional pension payment at the end of the year) which they introduced recently, were instrumental in helping many who have not experienced the wealth that Poland acquired in the past decades. As such, for them this election was about ensuring that the government that gave them these benefits stays in power.

Despite the astonishing overall green light for further erosion of democratic institutions in Poland, it is still a strong indication that almost half of the society is opposed to, and fed up with, the rule of the PiS. It can therefore be interpreted as a kind of a slap on the wrist, since now the populist right-wing party is painfully aware that, even with the huge advantages they had, only a slim majority could be established. As a result, they might be incentivised to dial down their policy of rapid change, or at least that would be a wise and strategic choice. Time will tell. One thing is for sure though: almost half of Poland stood up to oppose their rule, and it is more than likely that this solidarity and effort can generate a will to fight back in the coming years.

The consequences of this campaign, however, reach beyond Polish borders. On one hand, one can argue that the populist illiberal regimes have gained an additional victory. On the other, if we consider at what cost this has been achieved, it may send a strong warning to those freshly in power, as it was too close to call for several hours after the polls closed. The chilling reality for them is that, with a longer preparation period, and a more in-depth plan, a campaign against an illiberal government can be successful. Therefore, this example might provide insights for countries with similar challenges. Naturally, comparisons should be drawn very carefully: however, we cannot deny that the biggest bastion of illiberal democracy in Europe was not far from crumbling last night.

Nevertheless, the future is still very uncertain. Paradoxically, this result might even benefit the opposition in Poland. When the post-corona economic crisis hits, the social programs introduced by the government will be in danger. But in the absence of a president belonging to the opposition, who would provide a comfortable scapegoat, the government will have to either find a different target for its blame (which would be extremely dangerous for minorities), or take the brunt of the criticism on the chin. Either way, by mostly focusing on the mainly 60+ electorate in the countryside, despite a trend of growing urbanisation, is essentially an acknowledgement that PiS is trying to create the Poland of the future by returning to the Poland of the past.

A rather ironic quote from Kinga Duda, daughter of Andrzej Duda, from last night’s rally: “No matter who wins, I would like to appeal to you, that no one should be afraid to go out of his own house. Because irregardless of what we believe, what color our skin is, what views we have, what candidate we support, and who we love, we are all equal, and we all deserve respect. No one deserves to be the subject of hate, absolutely no one”

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