SIM Report: Central & Eastern Europe, Issue 4

POLAND: Narrow Presidential election run-off will have longer term implications on Poland-EU relation

Andrej Duda, an ally of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, emerged as the candidate with most votes (43.5 per cent) after the country’s presidential election on 28 June but fell short of a 50 per cent threshold to avoid a second round on 12 July. In the run-off poll, Duda will face Rafał Trzaskowski, Warsaw’s mayor and a member of the liberal Civic Platform party, who came second with 30.5 per cent of votes. According to the latest opinion polls, the result of that election is too close to call at present, but Duda remains the narrow favourite.

The re-election of Duda would help the PiS further cement power after successful parliamentary elections last year, ensuring the country follows a rightward political trajectory. Officials from PiS were hoping the original poll would take place in May, as originally planned, via a postal voting system despite the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. An ensuing economic downturn and questions about Poland’s response to the outbreak were probably responsible for the closer-than-expected election results. Trzaskowski will focus on rallying votes from the unsuccessful candidates and has already begun positioning himself as the candidate for change. In contrast, Duda has led a campaign specifically aimed at conservative voters; for example, the president pledged to ‘defend children from LGBT ideology’.

EU-Poland tensions over rule of law reforms and democracy will continue in the event of Duda’s re-election. On 3 July, Duda implied that Berlin was meddling in the election after a story circulated by a German tabloid reported that the president granted a pardon to a person serving a sentence related to a paedophilia case. This is the latest effort by the PiS to accuse foreign forces of interference as part of a bid to galvanise nationalist sentiment.

Duda performed predictably well in rural areas where the PiS enjoys strong support, while Trzaskowski emerged as the main candidate in cities such as Wasrsaw, Wrocław and Gdańsk. The PiS has managed to perform consistently well in recent elections using a blend of popular welfare policies, nationalistic rhetoric, and promoting strong socially conservative views. As it stands, Duda is likely to defeat his liberal challenger but the likelihood of this scenario will depend on whether Trzaskowski manages to broaden his appeal across the political spectrum.

In a bid to secure broader support, Trzaskowski has said he would adopt some of the policies of Szymon Hołownia – an independent who secured nearly 14 per cent of votes – if elected. Hołownia indicated he would vote for Trzaskowski in the second round. The liberal candidate also pledged to veto any tax increase, a welcome policy for the libertarian group that supported far-right candidate Krzystof Bosak, who won 6.7 per cent of votes in the first round.

While the role is largely ceremonial, the president can propose new legislation, veto laws, and plays a significant part in foreign policy. The PiS lacks a three-fifths majority in parliament to over-turn a veto by the president, which means that if Trzaskowski successfully wins the election, the PiS’s legislative agenda could be hampered. Trzaskowki has already said he would veto any law passed unconstitutionally or legislation that violates the 2050 climate neutrality goal for Poland. This could force the PiS to soften its stance on social issues and temper its approach towards Brussels. However, an inability to robustly pursue a legislative agenda may trigger early parliamentary elections. More broadly, if Trzaskowski secures a victory, this will likely revitalise the liberal party and propel it as a credible alternative to PiS. 

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