Run-Off Vote: State Restructuring in Poland Continues

Re-election of national conservative President Andrzej Duda reveals the weakness of the opposition

Strong President in Poland

The Polish President is not only a ceremonial representative of the country. He is commander-in-chief of the armed forces and can veto legislative decisions without providing reasons. In order to pass laws against his veto , a 3/5 majority in parliament (Sejm) is required – and such a majority does not currently exist in Poland. To make matters more complicated for the PiS, in 2019 it lost the majority in the Senate, which can refer back and thus delay resolutions of the Sejm. Thus, in order to implement its national conservative course, the PiS needed its own man in the presidential palace.

Since taking office in 2015, the PiS has consistently pursued the restructuring of the state in line with an authoritarian understanding of democracy. The judiciary and public media are hardly recognisable as independent anymore. The private media – many of which are owned by non-Polish publishers who are critical of the government – are now becoming victims to similar processes described as “Polonisation”. Proceedings against this state influence on the Polish media landscape, for non-compliance with constitutional standards, are now underway before the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The rhetoric against Germany made it easy for Donald Trump to carry another rift into NATO. With the announced transfer of US troops from Germany to Poland, will only have a negative impact on the security situation in Europe, but ultimately also in Poland.

If Trzaskowski had won the second round of voting, the government’s legally questionable plans would have been more difficult to pursue. European standards would remain valid. The chance to end polarisation of politics in the country would have been tangible. With the re-election of Duda, it looks as if the state restructuring can now continue uninterrupted. Trzaskowski and the opposition have lost their chances. At the end of the election campaign, the candidate’s victory was within reach.

Duda: A Candidate with Weaknesses

As late as spring it looked as if a victory for the PiS-backed presidential candidate Andrzej Duda was a foregone conclusion. In the end, it turned out to be a neck-and-neck race in the polls and ultimately a close final result. Two factors were essential for this development:

The initially invincible campaign machinery of incumbent Andrzej Duda had finally come to a standstill. The first round of voting was actually scheduled for 10 May – at the height of the corona crisis. PiS chairman Jarosław Kaczyński initially insisted very stubbornly on keeping this date because he was obstructing the opposition’s election campaign (especially major events), while “his” candidate Duda dominated the pro-government public media. According to surveys, even most PiS supporters found this unfair. In addition, it led to internal power struggles within the governing alliance of the right. In the end, the ballot was postponed to June 28. The consequence: a first drop in votes for Duda.

Secondly, when the poll results fell, Duda became more aggressive and tried to concentrate more on the right wing of the PiS electorate. Outbursts against the LGTBI community were the beginning. Most recently, it manifested itself in attacks against private media that are (co-)owned by German shareholders. In parts of the more extreme electorate, anti-German slogans about German media conspiracies do get through, but even large parts of the PiS voters do not support them. This upset Duda’s long-held image concept, which presented him as the “nice face” of the PiS. It made it more difficult for him to gain access to centrist voters, and again his approval ratings dropped.

Weak Support for Trzaskowski

For a long time it looked as if the opposition alliance Civic Coalition (KO), consisting of the moderate conservative Civic Platform (PO) and the liberal Nowoczesna party, would not even reach the second round of the presidential elections (a run-off of the best candidates from the first round, which becomes necessary if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the votes), but there was a change at the helm: Trzaskowski, the popular and charismatic mayor of Warsaw, replaced the previous KO candidate Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska, who had already been perceived as rather weak in the parliamentary elections. The plan seemed to work out: With 30.46 percent, Trzaskowski did unexpectedly well and easily reached the second round. The opinion poll results between him and Duda for the second round began to converge completely, the more his opponent erroneously moved towards the right wing.

But Trzaskowski also encountered difficulties in the campaign for the second round. Perhaps the final result would have been different, if all the candidates who were eliminated in the first round had supported him unreservedly. However, the vote of the third-placed candidate in the first round of voting, the independent Szymon Hołownia (13.86 percent), was disappointing. In the run-up to the second round of voting, he announced that he would vote against Duda, but “without conviction” for Trzaskowski. According to the disappointing final result, not enough of his supporters ultimately voted for Trzaskowski.

Opposition in Crisis

This brings us to the real problem: the weakness of the opposition is the real strength of Duda. The KO, whose core party PO was for many obsevers rightly voted out of office in 2015, is still the largest opposition party. However, its poll ratings have been falling continuously for a long time. Commentators speak of a latent existential crisis. As a liberal-market economy party, it finds no response to the government’s social-populist election gifts (which ironically were probably made possible because PO left a solid budget to PiS in 2015) and offers no convincing answer to the government’s openly national-clerical social policy. Since a conservative current also prevails in the PO on issues of LGTBI rights, Trzaskowski could not be tempted to advocate same-sex marriage. He manoeuvred and his profile remained weak.

In addition, the rest of the opposition camp is becoming increasingly fragmented and radicalised. The radical right (the Konfederacja party), radical left (Wiosna) and anti-parties (Kukiz’15 and the Szymon Hołownias party) are all represented in parliament or at least strong in polls. The KO lacks the strength to unite these forces against the PiS and to create a consensus. And after this presidential election, the PiS government will do everything possible to institutionally consolidate its position through further state restructuring. The chances of the opposition will be further structurally diminished in the future, for example by media policy.

In the near future, it is likely to become difficult for the opposition to find a strategy against this – and even more difficult to implement it. Former KO chairman Grzegorz Schetyna announced immediately after the election that the opposition must now pull itself together and present a united front in the near future in order to prevent anything worse for the country. A correct thought, but unfortunately it came a little late.

Dr. Detmar Doering

Project Director, FNF Central Europe and the Baltic States