It’s the fight of the decade and the Polish presidency is the prize (update)

On Sunday (28 June) almost 20 million Poles went to the polls to choose their head of state, who is largely ceremonial. Yet in a country ruled by symbols, the presidency is of utmost importance. Holding it is the ultimate proof for any political party of their power and popularity.

Earlier version of this article was published by Euractiv.com.

Andrzej Duda, the incumbent, scored well in the polls which he topped with 43.5%, ahead of the run-off scheduled for 12 July. His nickname in this campaign has been “the pen” for he signed every meaningful act of parliament controlled by PiS. A true soldier in the Jarosław Kaczyński army, he delivers: signing everything, he might have violated the Polish Constitution while remaining popular and almost securing the re-election in the first round of the vote.

Recently Duda was at the centre of two international scandals. First, he came out as the first openly homophobic leader of an EU country. Second, he arranged a visit to Washington to meet President Trump, forcing him to break a long-standing American tradition of not interfering with domestic elections of US’ allied nations.

Meanwhile, Duda’s opponent Rafał Trzaskowski is a Brussels’ insider. He might not be Donald Tusk, but a younger and more linguistically savvy version of him as a former minister in his government. Trzaskowski is the current Mayor of Warsaw and a former MEP. Fluent in 5 languages, his main challenge is not to be perceived as aloof.

Over the last month Trzaskowski has proven himself to be anything but that. He created new momentum and rose fast to be Duda’s main rival. About a week before the vote, he hit the maximum support he could have mastered in short time: 30%.

What kind of presidency Poles need?

Duda supporters have every right to believe they will win the 12 July vote. But while his advisors might have been celebrating already, they might face a rude awakening.

Polish society is deeply divided and strongly polarized. There are smear campaigns, attacks on opponents, teenagers from the Climate Strike have been brutally dispersed on more than one occasion during the Duda rallies and the hate campaign against LGBT is instigated by the president and his associates.

The role of the Polish president should be to build bridges between people. In a divided society the next president must reach out “to the other side” and should not settle for the status quo with the ruling party or simply to trigger the “counter-revolution” button. The president should soothe the wounds of the nation, he should not divide it.

The head of state should unite us on common causes: economic recovery post-COVID-19 and escape from the middle-income economy gap; decarbonization of our energy sector and creation of new employment in the green economy; and the digitalization of Europe in the era of big government and geopolitical conflict between China and America.

What to expect over the next two weeks?

The dynamics are as follows: 8.45 million votes for Duda. This is a scale comparable to the result for Law and Justice at last year parliamentary elections: 8 million votes (43.6%). The president has committed voters.

Politically he cannot turn to the centre. Instead he turns to the right. After all, the fourth result with almost 7% was Confederacy’s Krzysztof Bosak. Anti-European, homophobe, nationalistic as he may be, he is a proud nationalist, who talks smoothly and is always dressed like a businessman.

Can Duda deliver a victory? Clearly his camp believes so. But it is too early to call. Leading Polish sociologist Jarosław Flis from the Silesia University, agrees: “I would not bet any money on either of the candidates”.

The central question is this: How fast can Rafał Trzaskowski reach out beyond his party’s traditional support? So far he tried to portray himself not as a Civic Platform (PO) candidate, but of a wider movement. His movement is on the rise as his constituents are attracting new voters. 5.9 million votes last Sunday is 0.8 million more than last fall’s PO vote.

“Last year there was a joint block for the Senate with PO-PSL-Left. Together they won the Senate race against PiS,” Flis says.

In order to re-create the “Senate Block of 2019” in 2020 Trzaskowski’s most of the new votes this far were already from the Left, whose candidate Robert Biedroń was squeezed to 2.2%. He was quick to endorse Trzaskowski for the run-off.

Most political commentators in Warsaw agree: Trzaskowski’s ability to attract new voters is much better than Duda’s. Yet he has to recover 13% deficit from the first round. This is when Szymon Hołownia comes into the picture. A man from your TV screen, Hołownia’s campaign was centred around an inclusive and non-partisan presidency He attracted almost 14% of the vote.

The two met on a webinar to negotiate a compromise. Hołownia’s conditions for his endorsement of Trzaskowski? Under a general theme, “non-partisan presidency” Hołownia asks for three vetoes (the new president should veto anti-democratic, anti-green and anti-local government laws adopted by the PiS-controled parliament), non-partisan advisors in the future president’s chancellery, a local government council, and an audit in the state-owned companies. Trzaskowski’s response on all points: “Absolutely yes”.

Trzaskowski is reaching out even to the Confederate voters. This is because among the Confederates are free market libertarians. Traditionally PO shares the same political root DNA in economic liberalism. But do not expect Bosak to endorse any of the candidates for the second round.

Last year the opposition Block Senate won with PiS without the Confederates. Their support was split a third for the opposition candidates, a third for the PiS candidates and a third not voted or cast an invalid vote. Yet this year the turnout has been so high, Flis reminds “we walk terra incognita. 30% of Poles have never voted. Should this turnout increase in two weeks’ time, we have no material to tell who will benefit”.

Canvassing the votes from the Left to the far-right voters of Confederacy has to include the rural voters of the Peasants’ Party (PSL), whose leader Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz scored a disappointing 2%. Such a stretch would be massive, but is it likely? For now it is impossible to judge for two reasons.

First, Trzaskowski’s team is trying to frame the campaign as a Duda/PiS referendum. Clearly they hope that in such a referendum a diverse majority against would prevail.

Second, Trzaskowski wants to be a unifier: “people differ, but respect for another human being, brotherhood and community need to win. Do not look at me as an enemy, for I am not your enemy”, he wrote in a letter to PiS supporters on 12 June. There are probably more voters for Trzaskowski’s message, if he can be credible.

Yet, PiS spin doctors know this, too. They have been framing Trzaskowski as a man loving conflicts.

Last days of the campaign

To give you a sample of the campaign: Climate change-related storm hits Warsaw on Monday, the day after the first round of voting. Ever since PiS will accuse the Mayor of Warsaw for mismanaging the city.

On Wednesday it turns out president Andrzej Duda has pardoned a sex offender. The issue of paedophilia is a delicate matter in the society traumatised by pictures of children violated by paedophile Catholic priests. Even if Duda is correct in this case (the victim, the court, the social workers all supported the motion) the timing of the information is not helping his campaign.

On Thursday the first of the no-debates does not take place. Duda decided not to accept the invitation of a private TV station. Instead, the journalist interviews only Trzaskowski. On Monday the state propaganda TVP is scheduled to host a debate. Andrzej Duda will come. Will Trzaskowski show up? Doubtful.

9 more days until the historic day.

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