Presidential Election in Poland: Sunday Will Be Decisive

Two weeks after the first round of the presidential elections in Poland, the decisive run-off election will take place on Sunday. The Poles will not only decide on their head of state for the coming term of office, but also on the direction the country will take in the coming years. Should the incumbent Andrzej Duda, candidate of the ruling national conservative party “Law and Justice” (PiS), win, the PiS could continue undisturbed with its controversial plans to restructure the judiciary and media for at least another three years, i.e. until the next parliamentary elections. However, with the candidate Rafał Trzaskowski, who is supported by the largest opposition alliance “Civic Coalition” (KO), the opposition can hope to break the PiS power monopoly.

In the first round of voting, Duda received the largest share of the votes cast, 43.5%, but failed to obtain an absolute majority. He therefore has to face re-election in the second round. Warsaw Mayor Trzaskowski, who comes from the ranks of the opposition liberal-conservative Civic Platform (PO), came in at 30.5%. According to the latest polls, the outcome of the second round is still open and the chances of the two candidates are almost equal. Much depends on whom support  the voters who voted for other candidates in the first round.

The Voters of the Defeated Candidates Shall Decide

The independent candidate, Szymon Hołownia, who came in third with 13.9%, declared last week that he would vote against Duda in the run-off vote, but “without conviction” for Trzaskowski. During the election campaign, Hołownia wanted to distance himself clearly from established party politics and offer an alternative to voters tired of the eternal struggle between KO and PiS.

It is expected that the overwhelming majority of his supporters will support Trzaskowski against Duda. According to an IBRiS poll, 83% of Hołownia voters could vote for the Mayor of Warsaw. According to the same poll, 75% of the voters of the leader of the Polish People’s Party, Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz, and the candidate of the Left, Robert Biedroń, would also vote for Trzaskowski. However, the two candidates received only 4.6% in the first round, which was far below expectations.

According to observers, it could be decisive which position the fourth largest group of voters, the supporters of Krzysztof Bosak (6.8%) who was nominated by the far-right Confederation Party in the first round of voting, will take in the run-off vote. The group appears to be deeply divided. On the one hand, Bosak’s voters are closer to Duda’s ultra-conservative social policy, for example on issues such as the rejection of LGBT rights. On the other hand, many of them strongly oppose the statist economic policies of PiS. In order to address Bosak’s supporters, Trzaskowski emphasized right after the first round of voting that he shared very similar ideas with them regarding economic freedom.

Bosak himself made it clear that he would not support any candidate in the second round. He described the choice between Trzaskowski and Duda as “a choice between an open enemy and a false friend”. According to the aforementioned IBRiS survey, Duda could count on the support of 67% of Bosaks voters. Trzaskowski would receive 27% of their votes.

In order to mobilise the conservative camp and divide Trzaskowski’s voters, Duda is now once again putting the LGBT issue at the centre of his campaign. He recently announced a proposal for a constitutional amendment that would explicitly prohibit same-sex couples from adopting children. With the LGBT issue, Duda tried to marginalize Trzaskowski, who as mayor of Warsaw pleaded for greater support and tolerance for sexual minorities in strictly Catholic Poland, throughout the election campaign. In order not to alienate himself from more conservative voters, Trzaskowski declared that he was also against same-sex adoptions. However, he would support the introduction of same-sex partnerships. Trzaskowski criticised Duda for highlighting the LGBT issue to divert attention from other issues.

Duda: The Germans want to Appoint the President in Poland

Last week the incumbent president brought up a new topic in the election campaign, namely how Germany is allegedly trying to influence the Polish presidential election by means of reporting. At an election campaign rally, Duda accused the Warsaw correspondent of the “Welt”, Philipp Fritz, of being part of “the German attacks” against him. “Not long ago, you could read in the newspaper DIE WELT that its Warsaw correspondent, Mr Fritz, had informed that Mr Trzaskowski would be the better president for Germany because he is against Poland taking reparations from the Germans…”, Duda said. In fact, Fritz wrote in his analysis of the first round of voting that Trzaskowski could bring “a less confrontational tone” to Polish-German relations. In contrast to many PiS politicians, the mayor of Warsaw is sceptical about the high demands for reparations for the damage caused during the Second World War. According to “Die Welt”, the attacks against critical Polish journalists by the government are no exception. “But the fact that the head of state personally names a foreign journalist and suggests that he is writing on behalf of a foreign government is a unique occurrence,” writes Die Welt.   

During the same speech, Duda also accused a Polish newspaper, owned by the Swiss-German media group Ringier Axel Springer, of interfering in the election. After the tabloid “Fakt” had reported on a pardon by Duda in a pedophilia case, Duda asked: “Do the Germans want to appoint the president in Poland?” According to observers, the president wanted to trigger anti-German resentment among conservative and especially older voters with his statements.

The German government strongly criticizes Duda’s attacks and is concerned about the state of press freedom in Poland. In its report on the election process, the human rights institution of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) also criticized the fact that the public broadcaster TVP had acted as the mouthpiece of the incumbent president during the election campaign and systematically presented opponents of Duda as a threat to Polish values and national interests. During the election campaign, Trzaskowski even decided to sue TVP for false reporting on him. The station had tried to present him, among other things, as an ally of a “powerful foreign lobby” which, according to TVP, was responsible for Muslim mass immigration to Europe.

Media Freedom at Stake

According to “Reporters Without Borders”, Poland slipped from 18th to 62nd place in the international ranking on press freedom during the five years of the PiS government. The ruling PiS party has long been calling for a “repolonisation ” of the media, which would restrict the foreign ownership of Polish media. Since its return to power in 2015, PiS has not presented any laws to this effect. In view of recent developments, Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro reiterated the need to rethink the situation of the media in Poland after the election campaign. Perhaps Duda’s campaign against the foreign press will give a taste of what could soon follow. The ruling party PiS has come into conflict with the EU on several occasions in the past five years because of its controversial reforms of the judiciary and the media. In one of his first appearances, Trzaskowski stated that he wanted to establish a new public channel, modelled on the BBC, instead of the state-run TVP. The manner in which PiS has used state media for “propaganda” is “poisoning our public life”, he said. He also promised to repair relations with Brussels. In his own words, he wants to “fight for a strong state, to fight for democracy”. Whether he gets this chance will be decided on Sunday.

Natálie Maráková

Project Manager, FNF Central Europe and the Baltic States