An Andrzej Duda victory would bring a hardening of the government's course. In contrast, if his challenger Rafał Trzaskowski prevails, it would mean a turbulent time in politics but also the possibility of a new start for Poland in the world.
On 12 July, in the upcoming second-round vote of the presidential election, there will be 18 million or more votes cast by just over 30 million registered citizens.
It is a neck and neck race with some chances and hope for the opposition that Rafał Trzaskowski would win, by means of uniting at least 9 million voters who repeat his electoral chant: enough is enough.
The result of this race will be a turning point for Poland and its role in Europe.
But before further implications are considered, the campaign should be seen as more interesting than it appears at first sight. And there are lessons to be drawn from it for all democratic forces, dominated for the time being by an autocratic style of governance.
Policies as slogans
At first sight, there is little to comment on the campaign which is often straying away from key policy issues and instead is a pop-festival of gigs, conspiracy theories and shamingly divisive statements.
Policies are there as slogans but have become a risky campaign subject to develop further as candidates realised they can lose more than win by addressing them in the race.
For both camps, this vote is a referendum for or against the continued dominance of PiS.
In fact, Andrzej Duda promises exactly that he will stand by the PiS political camp – moving away from his non-partisan promise when he was sworn in for the president’s office.
Mr Trzaskowski, on the other hand, is clearly aware of the popularity some of the PiS policies enjoy, such as social benefits and knows how to defend himself against predictable attacks.
His tactics, accounting for a much more diversified group of voters, is a continuing chant about a citizens’ dialogue – a form of consultation of interest groups during the electoral process that was once promised by PiS but never fulfilled.
It should be noted that the electoral strategy of Rafał Trzaskowski overall comprises a new approach to challenging the illiberal government.
Instead of directly challenging key problems that energise militant groups of civil society such as the rule of law, the constitutional order or corruption of public funds, Trzaskowski first accepts that Polish society is looking elsewhere – in the direction of social and economic policies and to the tangible everyday political experience found in the performance of the local municipality.
This is the acceptance of a new political paradigm instead of the continuation of a principled fight in a battle that was lost years ago. It is a noteworthy but also risky experiment that embraces political reality to acquire the political tools attributed to an elected office.
Even if Mr Trzaskowski will eventually fail to win the majority of votes, he would be the first among all fighting illiberal governments to come that close. There is a lesson in there for all putting hopes and efforts to defeat autocrats of this world.
Yet, despite the apparent absence of a real policy debate, this election is a turning point for Poland. Either Mr Duda wins allowing PiS to harden its course. Or Mr Trzaskowski prevails, which will mean a turbulent time in politics but also the beginning of a decline of PiS rule and a new start for Poland in the world.
An elected president has several things to say on a number of issues. Among others, he has the final word in the legislative process but most importantly he represents Poland abroad and partly shapes its foreign policy, including ambassadorial appointments and initiating dialogue with other countries.
In the campaign, his rival, Mr Duda and the whole PiS camp pushed their insults and conspiracy theories against so many groups that Poland has in effect antagonised its closest allies.
There were unprecedented tweets from US Ambassador to Polish governments calling to withdraw from its lies. There was the Polish MFA loudly demanding from a German-based and American-Swiss-German owned media group to stop reporting on Mr Duda’s strange decision to pardon a paedophile.
Additionally, there were Kremlin disinformation handbook narratives on LGBT, anti-vaccination, the end of the pandemic – just when Melbourne and Israel were just about to shut down again – and about Germany’s agents influencing the election. All these narratives were spread by the ruling camp, including the prime minister who is actively campaigning for Mr Duda.
Perhaps those statements are less noticeable in the light of Donald Trump’s very own fake facts factory but should Andrzej Duda win with a set of conspiracy theories, it will leave Poland with even fewer friends in the world than it already has.
His mark on the foreign policy being ‘all the eggs in Donald Trump’s protective basket’ puts Poland at risk ahead of November when Joe Biden and Democratic Party are likely to take over the US leadership.
Meanwhile, the incumbent from Warsaw was just recently paying a visit to please the current White House occupant and to receive an endorsement.
A new opening
A potential change in the USA is just one other important argument for a new opening that Poland needs. Too many bridges were burnt by the current leadership for Poland to be successful in the post-COVID-19 world that will soon be emerging.
Out of the two candidates, only Mr Trzaskowski seems to be aware that Poland needs allies both in the US and in the EU.
These are the key initiatives that Poland’s new president needs to address:
- The EU Green Deal policies need to become ‘Polish green deal’ with the president at the helm of a major transformation of mindsets in Poland about the future of energy security and environmental protection for the sake of the new generation
- A philosophy of dialogue to initiate a principled strategic communication initiative against further internal polarisation that would endanger Polish international position
- Leadership in the Future of Europe Conference where Poland’s role is to support Central Europe and present its own voice in a discussion about the future direction for the EU
- A French-German-Polish Weimar Triangle restart with representatives from civil society and governments developing joint policy initiatives for Europe
- Security and defence evaluation carried out in strategic partnership with the USA but in the context of the full involvement of NATO instead of divisive bilateralism
- A Central European format of presidential dialogue which would empower democratic civil society and could be carried out in cooperation with the Slovak President Zuzana Čaputova