Since 2015, the Polish governing party Law and Justice (PiS) has been trying to rewrite the rules to tilt the playing field to its advantage. This is accurately mirrored in the current presidential election, where the liberal mayor of Warsaw does not have anything approaching equal opportunities in the race with the incumbent president, supported by the regime.
It is way too close to call the second round of the Polish presidential election on Sunday because only a few hundred thousand votes could decide the outcome. Opinion polls have been measuring incumbent President Andrzej Duda and his challenger, Rafał Trzaskowski neck and neck for weeks.
While Duda has been slightly ahead before, Trzaskowski just took the lead according to a poll conducted by IBRIS: the candidate of the party Civic Platform (PO) is currently at 47 per cent while Duda is polling at 46 per cent.
Warsaw’s liberal mayor is facing a twofold challenge. He has to mobilise a diverse opposition camp that reflects a broad ideological spectrum beyond his own constituencies.
One of the keys to his success is Szymon Hołownia, who gained momentum before the first round and came third with the aid of a strong anti-establishment narrative.
The Catholic former television presenter did not campaign openly for Trzaskowski because of power-political reasons. While the mayor of Warsaw can hardly win without Hołownia’s 2.7 million voters, his movement “Poland 2050” could largely benefit from the collapse of Trzaskowski’s camp in the long run.
The mobilisation of moderate centrist opposition voters is only one side of the coin. Although the exceptionally high turnout of 64.51 per cent in the first round could be considered as good news for the state of Polish democracy, Trzaskowski is competing on a rather unequal playing political field with Duda.
In its preliminary findings, ODIHR declared that the Polish authorities have handled the first round of the presidential elections professionally. The election monitoring report claimed that that public broadcaster TVP “failed in its legal duty to provide balanced and impartial coverage”, functioning as a “campaign tool for the incumbent” with “xenophobic and anti-Semitic undertones”.
Besides that, Rafał Trzaskowski had a lot more difficult task than Andrzej Duda.
After replacing Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska in the race, he not only had far less financial space to manoeuvre than the other ten candidates. Instead of 50 days, Trzaskowski had less than a week to collect the necessary signatures for the nomination.
Also, the government allocated massive state resources to mobilise support for the incumbent candidate. Free fire trucks were promised to settlements under 20,000 inhabitants which have a huge prestige in smaller rural towns.
It is not yet known whether to what extent it has influenced voting preferences, nonetheless, these settlements were mostly voting for Duda.
Race against the clock
Despite the record-high turnout among Poles living abroad, it was a lot harder to cast a ballot abroad due to pandemic-related restrictions and the last-minute amended institutional and legal framework.
Foreign consulates had only nine working days to prepare and send electoral packages, which means that voters had only four to five days to return them via the post.
Altogether, 87.6 per cent of the 334,000 packages were returned, which means that it is not yet known whether the rest were sent on time and whether Polish citizens received them at all.
On top of that, the online platform called eWybory crashed for two hours right after the first round, when people would have been registering for the second round. This probably affected up to 140,000 voters who will no longer be able to vote on 12 July.
While there were no signs that the Polish authorities wished to undermine the system, it raises concerns because the majority of Polish citizens residing elsewhere in Europe voted for Trzaskowski.
Trzaskowski can only lose on the Polish public TV
All this without mentioning the fact that a close result would potentially result in a legal battle that could also benefit Duda from the institutional point of view.
The validity of the elections will be declared by the extraordinary control chamber of the Supreme Court, that was appointed by Duda himself within the context of dobra zmiana (“good change”) of the current government.
Polish public television TVP (often labelled as ‘TVPiS’ among oppositional circles) has been waging a defamation campaign against Trzaskowski. It is systematically portraying the mayor of Warsaw as a professionally incompetent candidate who is against the will of the Polish people and controlled by “Jewish deep state”.
TVP depicts him as an existential threat to traditionalist Polish Catholic values since he gave gestures to the LGBTQ minorities. This was visible during the pre-election presidential debate when the anchor’s tailor-made questions sought to directly undermine Trzaskowski’s legitimacy.
Finally, this week, the candidates held separate presidential ‘debates’, after they had failed to agree on a format and host for a joint event. It raises serious questions about the political culture of Poland and indicates an unprecedented level of polarisation since the democratic transition in 1989.
Riding the wave of identity-based fears, anti-LGBTQ sentiment has been a constant element of the government’s political discourse for years.
Although Duda took an openly homophobic direction only in June, he already announced to eliminate sex education in schools that was proposed by Trzaskowski last year. While participation is voluntary and it is in line with the guidelines of the World Health Organisation, PiS and the Polish Catholic Church were heavily attacking the initiative.
Duda not only compared LGBTQ ‘ideology’ to “communist indoctrination”, that is “morally corrupting” children, but he would also amend the constitution to explicitly ban the adoption of children by same-sex couples.
Catch the wind from the far-right’s sails
The practical advantage of this is that anti-LGBTQ messages emphasising child protection can be easily tied to the government’s generous social welfare package.
One of the flagships projects of PiS is the 500+ family support programme that has been successfully creating mass clientelism on terms of exchange of welfare support into political support.
Embedding it into a strong ideological context, this tying might be relatively popular in a socio-cultural environment where only ten per cent of the respondents would support gay adoption rights.
By exploiting conservative, traditionalist sentiments, Duda can kill two birds with one stone. This way, he can cement his conservative base and address the majority of Krzysztof Bosak’s far-right electorate. In the first round, Bosak ended up in a fourth place with a constituency of 1.7 million voters.
This strategy, together with anti-vaccination narratives could also divert some attention from paedophile charges against the Catholic Church. Besides its significant socio-cultural role, the Polish Catholic Church continues to provide strong political support for PiS, especially in the south-eastern voivodeships.
Thus, the government keeps emphasising the positive role of the Church in the fight against “rainbow terrorists” by depicting those who dare to criticise the institution as a nihilist.
The tactics of PiS have partially achieved their goal after Trzaskowski openly agreed with Duda with regard to adoption rights. At the same time, the opposition labelled the incumbent president as a “paedophile supporter” after Duda had granted a pardon to a man convicted of sexual offences against an underage girl.
Since the case triggered accusations and counter-accusations ahead of the second round of the elections, the style of the opposition’s campaign became rougher as well.
And yet, Trzaskowski performs more outstandingly than his predecessor: not only does he have better rhetorical skills than Kidawa-Błońska. He has also excellently balanced his approach between system-critical and unifying messages.
At the beginning of his campaign, Trzaskowski picked on the public television, claiming that he would completely transform TVP. Besides defending the social welfare packages introduced by PiS, he also sent a letter to PiS MP’s in which he promised to represent their interests as a head of state.
Duda is the key to authoritarian system-building
A real stake in the presidential election is the future of the rule of law in Poland. It comes as no surprise that the sitting president follows the guidelines of his own party, and Andrzej Duda deserved the nickname długopis (“pen”) for a reason. He only stood up against PiS once when he vetoed a governmental initiative to reduce the autonomy of local governments in 2017.
Otherwise, he deliberately assisted the informal leader of Poland, Jarosław Kaczynski, to challenge the achievements of the democratic transition by introducing a new type of hybrid political system.
PiS – similarly to Hungary’s Fidesz – has been successfully building on the social impatience with checks and balances, which are viewed as obstacles of “getting things done for the people”.
Duda has massively contributed to the fact that Poland has witnessed one of the biggest democratic declines in the European Union according to global indices.
Andrzej Duda’s victory would provide PiS with smooth sailing to retain control over legislation, confirming changes to the judiciary remain unchallenged. According to the ruling party’s populist narrative, judges are not better than corrupt “Nazi collaborators,” while only PiS represents the “pure Polish people.
Once, Duda even claimed that judges elected before 2015 should be ”eliminated”, otherwise “Poland will never be a normal country”.
The ‘repolonisation’ of the media could be also on the agenda again, which could impact the two largest private media conglomerates: TVN, owned by the US Discovery Channel, and the Polsat group.
Although the Polish public media, like the Hungarian one, has ‘fallen’ and intimidation of government-critical journalists is becoming more frequent, the Polish media market remained diversified, with the majority of newspapers and televisions operating independently of the governing party.
There have been governmental attempts to cut foreign subsidies before, but PiS tuned it down mainly due to American diplomatic pressure. Despite that during the campaign he received one of the most valuable support from the White House, Duda eventually accused TVN group of “political gangsterism”.
Moreover, after the tabloid magazine Fakt, owned by German Axel Springer, reported details of the presidential pardon of a paedophile, PiS openly accused Germany of electoral interference.
Restricting academic freedom could be also on the agenda, ever since a proposal was introduced in May to reorganise a part of the Polish Academy of Sciences.
Little is known for the time being, but a more centralised operation would have a negative effect on the research environment. Even if universities are politically free, censorship can be self-imposed in the academic community.
Lack of horizontal accountability
Trzaskowski would most certainly block such attempts. While the Senate could only slow down, he could de facto hinder government efforts to further transforming the system. Due to the semi-presidential system, he could veto any decision, while the ruling party does not have a three-fifths majority to overwrite it.
Trzaskowski would most probably attempt to roll back some of the personnel changes to Poland’s top courts and to fine-tune the government’s confrontative, Eurosceptic foreign policy towards the EU.
In contrast to that, Duda’s victory would also secure continuity in the informal distribution of decision-making power that is centred around Jarosław Kaczynski.
Formal organisations and procedures of the Polish state often do not determine how decisions are made. Instead, real decision-making authority is wielded by the informal practices of ‘Nowogrodzka’ (where PiS is headquartered, ed.). These practices dictate how formal state organs must act.
This informal modus operandi based on a troubling lack of horizontal accountability is a lot more difficult to identify for international observers.