Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy.
Incumbent Polish president Andrzej Duda found out on Sunday that populist indignation is all very well when you’re running against an unpopular government, but much less when the demands for change are directed against you.
After a cock-up in which emergency legislation to hold an all-postal ballot was defeated in the Senate and then scotched by the ruling Law and Justice Party’s (PiS) coalition partners, the first round of Poland’s presidential elections proved much closer than had seemed likely had the Coronavirus not caused their postponement.
The delay gave the opposition KO (Civic Coalition) a much needed chance to swap out the underperforming Malgorzata Kidawa-Bionska for Rafal Trzaskowski, the Mayor of Warsaw. The substitution proved effective, denying Duda a victory on the first round against a divided field of anti-PiS candidates. (Duda got 43 per cent of the vote, and Trzaskowki 30 per cent).
Turnout was high in recognition of the stakes produced by Law and Justice’s divisive political style: the campaign was marred, the mild-mannered Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights noted, by Duda’s “inflammatory” and “homophobic” language. His messages were parroted by state TV: “the public broadcaster became a campaign tool for the incumbent, while some reporting had clear xenophobic and anti-Semitic undertones.”
It came after five years of constitutional vandalism by PiS that even extended to keeping judgements of the constitutional court that struck down PiS legislation, secret. Because Poland’s president can veto legislation, a victory for Trzaskowski would decisively shift the balance of power in Poland. At present the opposition only controls the Senate, which can only delay laws for 30 days.
The luck of the political calendar (parliamentary terms are four years long, but presidential terms last five) had given PiS control of both houses of the Polish parliament, and the presidency in 2015, when their support was at a high point, and their opposition tired and divided.
Though they campaigned as moderates focused on social distribution, they governed as radicals, engaging in all-out war with the judiciary, politicising public broadcasting, clearing out senior ranks of the civil service and armed forces, attempting to ban abortion, and showing considerable tolerance to Poland’s ultra-nationalist paramilitary fringe.
This shook up the opposition, causing rival parties Civic Platform (PO) and Nowoczesna to form an alliance, which fielded Trzaskowski as its presidential candidate, as well as inspiring Szymon Holownia, an independent conservative, to run (and win 14 per cent of the vote).
Another mayor, the openly gay Robert Biedron, sought to revive the left, and while he did well enough in last year’s parliamentary elections faded in the presidential contest. This leaves the second-round result on a knife edge.
It is likely that most of Biedron’s and Holownia’s voters together, with those for the agrarian Wladyslaw Kosinak-Kamysz, will swing behind Trzaskowski, giving him another five per cent, and bringing his vote up to between 45 and 48 per cent of the total, and possibly an edge over Duda.
Duda however seems close to his ceiling. His 43.5 per cent of the vote is essentially unchanged of his party’s 43.6 per cent share at last year’s parliamentary election, and desperate attempts to drive up turnout among his base, which included awarding a fire engine to villages with high turnout (PiS is strongest in the countryside), don’t seem to have worked.
The only available vote bank is the seven per cent of supporters of Krysztof Bosak, the candidate for the anti-semitic, pro-Russian, economically libertarian and deeply misogynistic Konfederacja party. The electoral impact of this love-child of Von Ribbentrop, Molotov and Jordan Peterson is less clear than its designation as “far right” would indicate.
One might think they would naturally support Duda’s against the evils of “LGBT ideology”. Yet they differ radically from PiS on economic policy, favouring high-tech free markets over redistribution to rural communities, and consider PiS’s pro-Catholicism at best naive. Demographically, they are young and educated, more in line with Trszaskowski’s generation than Duda’s, and unlikely to be inspired by Duda’s message of continuity.
Duda has to hope that his homophobia can bring them over without alienating some of his more centrist backers. Trzaskowski had sought to woo them by making references to economic freedom. Bosak himself has endorsed neither candidate and it is not unlikely quite a few of his more cynical voters will sit the second round out. The final result may depend on whether they’re more scared of gay men or the tax man.