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Andrzej Duda wins the Polish presidential elections

The president supported by Law and Justice comes on top with a narrow win in Poland’s election thriller.

July 14, 2020 - Daniel Gleichgewicht - Articles and Commentary

Polish President Andrzej Duda speaking in Mexico City. Gobierno Ciudad de Mexico. wikimedia.org (cc)

The second round of the Polish presidential elections took place on Sunday July 12th. The turnout standing at 68.18 per cent was even higher than in the first round. It ultimately benefited the incumbent, President Andrzej Duda who won with 51.03 per cent of the vote. While the challenger, the Mayor of Warsaw Rafał Trzaskowski received 48.97 per cent of the vote. The race was close to the very end after a campaign that is likely to have left its mark on Polish politics. There are a few days to file protests ending with the Supreme Court ruling on the elections legality.

As was expected the battle for votes grew in intensity in the period between the first and second rounds. There were revelations from both sides about the other candidate that were meant to hurt his chances. Andrzej Duda came under fire for suspending a restraining order for a man who had been sentenced for pedophilia and for speaking out against mandatory vaccination. On the other hand, Rafał Trzaskowski was accused of an inconsistent voting record on the retirement age and for being a “German” candidate. Other than continued segments aimed against the LGBT minority, the narrative from state media visibly turned hostile towards Germany and Jews, spending most hours of the day campaigning either for Duda or against Trzaskowski. Another central topic became the debate, or the lack of one. President Duda did not show up at a debate organised by several commercial news outlets. Rafał Trzaskowski also missed a chance to challenge his opponent by not coming to the debate organised by state TV in Końskie in the Świętokrzyskie voivodship. In the end, both “debates” were more like interviews aimed at benefiting the respective candidate.

The election result will serve as confirmation of the direction Law and Justice (PiS) leader Jarosław Kaczyński has set his mind on. At the same time it is a sign for the re-elected president that almost half of Polish society disapproves of his previous five years in office. This is unlikely enough to change the conduct of Duda, who has never fully cut his ties with the circles that brought him to power. The level of participation of the government, departments and institutions in Duda’s campaign is without precedent in Poland. It could backfire, but only in the next election, which is three years away. The ruling party has certainly bought itself some more time. With the opposition losing yet another election, it seems the greatest challenger to PiS are the factions within the party itself. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro and Jarosław Gowin are among several politicians vying for more power challenging Kaczyński’s mission of retaining a steady course. It remains to be seen whether Duda’s second victory will also give him a seat at that table.

Yet another defeat for the opposition will be hard to take. Before the elections some observers questioned the Civic Platform’s (PO) resilience and if they could survive another loss. The energy that was gathered in the buildup to the second round refutes that. The elections have shown that there could be alternatives to the Civic Coalition (KO), but it is unclear how far independent candidate Szymon Hołownia can reach without entering party politics and consensus building. Trzaskowski’s position after the election is strengthened within his own party and with over 67 per cent in Warsaw he has also confirmed his support in running the capital. Even if he was the loser of this election he has raised his profile as a champion of the larger cities.

A few years ago the then chairman of PO Grzegorz Schetyna famously said that elections are won in Końskie, not in Wilanów – an affluent district of Warsaw. The election data proves him right with a great divide between rural and urban Poland. President Duda has clearly benefited from his many travels around the countryside during his first five-year term. Trzaskowski has had overwhelming backing from the mayors of larger cities where he reiterated his support for local governance. Another clear cut difference between the voting groups was age. First time voters and people under 30 were more likely to vote for Trzaskowski, while Duda had the overwhelming support of people above the age of 60. The geographical divide from the first round remained intact with the west of the country for Trzaskowski and the east voting for Duda. The elections saw large participation from Poles living abroad. In Split, Croatia, Polish tourists waited in lines until long after dark to cast their votes becoming a Croatian news story.

After holding its breath the international community has started to come to terms with the election results congratulating Duda with his success. Viktor Orban and Donald Trump will be among the most satisfied with the result. Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, Ursula von der Leyen and many other leaders in Europe quietly hoped for a different outcome, but have by now learnt how to live with a Poland run by PiS. A confrontation between Poland and the European Union does seems more likely going forward.

The political divide in Poland has become even clearer. This can also be seen in how little the elections concerned the role and functions of the president, but instead focused on values, worldview and perception of reality. With the global pandemic refusing to slow down and a time of economic woes looming ahead, PiS will be put to the test. Controlling all instruments of power in the coming years will make the narrative of “the last 8 years of the opposition in power” obsolete.

The biggest question in Poland after the elections is how to bridge the divide that has become so evident. President Duda has invited Trzaskowski to shake hands and for talks of unity. Simultaneously he has said that he does not regret anything he has uttered in the campaign. 30 years after the first free elections after communism it is a healthy sign that participation was so high. Even with a narrow win, PiS will feel emboldened to further change Poland in its own image. The opposition will feel rejuvenated with its newfound appeal with younger voters, but hurt by another defeat. The national dialogue is the biggest victim of these elections and it will be difficult for Duda to salvage it without any significant changes to state TV.

Daniel Gleichgewicht is an editor with New Eastern Europe.

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