President Duda’s bittersweet victory in Poland’s presidential elections

Expectations were high in the Polish presidential elections held yesterday. According to official results, incumbent President Andrzej Duda has won with 43.7% of the votes while Rafał Trzaskowski, from the liberal Civic Platform (PO), has come second with 30.3%. These two candidates will face each other in a run-off to be held in two weeks. The turnout rate was 64%, the highest since the extremely polarized 1995 presidential contest, confirming the exceptionality of these elections.

As expected, incumbent President Andrzej Duda, the candidate of the governing Law and Justice (PiS), managed to top the poll with nearly 44% of the votes. However, his victory might end up being more bitter than sweeter. He didn’t manage to obtain an absolute majority and will have to face in two weeks the liberal mayor of Warsaw, Rafał Trzaskowski, who – despite becoming a candidate only in May – came second with over 30% of the votes. Looking at the electoral results obtained by each of the remaining nine candidates, the odds seem to be distributed awfully equally between the runner-up and the incumbent in what promises to be a very close race.

The second round of the presidential elections will constitute a touchstone for what Poland’s democracy will become as Trzaskowski’s victory might become the first step in the restitution of checks and balances in the country, so harmed since Duda’s, and then PiS’ victories five years ago. In Poland, the rule of law has suffered important setbacks since 2015. Thus, judicial independence has been limited, freedom of press constrained and minority rights (especially LGBT) under attack. All this under President Duda’s watch who, even if acting sometimes against PiS’ interests (Poland’s semi-presidential regime grants him veto powers that are difficult to over-rule by the parliament), failed to stop the government’s roadmap towards an illiberal democracy, acting more as a puppet of Jarosław Kaczyński, PiS’s leader and de facto ruler of the country. 

Stakes for the electoral contest in two weeks are extremely high because, after losing its majority in the upper chamber (i.e. Senate) during the last legislative elections held less than a year ago, a presidential defeat might become too costly for PiS, as it will certainly constrain the ruling party’s executive power grab. To the point that a new resident in the Belvedere, Poland’s Presidential Palace, might not only bring plurality back to Polish politics, but also loosen the currently rather tense relations with the European Union, given Trzaskowski’s experience as a member of the European Parliament.

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No doubt, the run-off will be very competitive. Duda will be able to count on the support of not only those who voted for him yesterday, but also on a big part of those who voted for the far-right candidate, Krzysztof Bosak (4th with 6.8% of the votes). Altogether they constitute over 9 million votes, half a million less than the necessary to win in the second round, as Duda’s own campaign managers have recognized, fearful that he might have touched his support ceiling already. Likewise, Trzaskowski will be able to add to his 5.8 million voters the support of at least three out of four of Szymon Hołownia’s voters (a journalist and an independent candidate who came third with 13.9% of the votes). These ballots, together with most of the 2.6% obtained by the agrarian Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz, and almost all of the 2.2% obtained by the left-wing candidate, Robert Biedroń, might be also enough to win the second round. According to the latest polls, both candidates are stuck around 45% with 10% of Poles yet to decide their preferred candidate. 

The mobilization of particular electorates will be crucial. Looking at data from yesterday’s exit polls, it seems that even if both sides of the polarized political spectrum have managed to mobilize Polish voters to a higher extent, Trzaskowski’s anti-PiS camp has a slight advantage as the female turnout was higher than the male one and the level of abstention higher in smaller towns. Electoral participation was also higher among the youngest, a surprise given their traditional hesitation to turn to vote in high numbers. A lot will depend on the young male voters who decided to support the far-right Bosak, the second most popular candidate among those below 30 years old in this first round. They might decide to go to vote in order to avoid a liberal victory, but they might also stay home instead given Duda’s more moderate views (according to their taste). 

Another question is what one-quarter of Hołownia’s more conservative supporters will do. They might well decide to abstain and not follow its candidate’s most recent instruction to vote for Trzaskowski. Moreover, perhaps due to Covid-19 fears, older (traditionally more conservative) voters participated in lower proportions (just 56.1% for those over 60 years old). This might be one of the most important consequences of the pandemic that obliged to postpone the elections, originally scheduled for the beginning of May. Taking into consideration that the level of turnout tends to be higher in the second round (this has been the case in all Polish presidential elections since 1990), a high level of participation might benefit both candidates, making this race the most exciting one in the last decade and a half.

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Given that a few votes might be decisive, we can expect fierce competition over how to mobilize the undecided 10% as well as those ‘casual voters’ which in Poland have traditionally constituted a big proportion of the electorate. Already before the first round, in an unprecedented move, Mariusz Kamiński – Poland’s Minister of Interior – promised fire engines for all those small municipalities with the highest level of turnout in the elections. Not coincidentally, this is where most of President Duda’s potential voters live. Looking at the first survey results, this might have helped Duda more than his sudden visit to the White House aiming to have President’s Trump support. As a response, and hoping to boost Trzaskowski’s campaign, a group of famous musicians have already promised a star line-up for a free of charge festival in the city with the highest turnout. 

Incidentally, election day yesterday coincided with the International Pride Day. During his radio interview the morning after, President Duda talked once again about LGBT rights, a pivotal issue in this campaign. According to him, LGBT is an ideology which, comparable to communism, puts traditional family values at risk. This is contrast to Trzaskowski who, even if opposed to same-sex marriage and adoption, defends the LGBT community. Given his need to appeal to far-right voters, Duda is expected to continue a polarizing campaign on cultural issues as, paradoxically, Bosak’s supports are closer to the more liberal Trzaskowski on economic ones.

Furthermore, given the competitiveness of the contest, the affluence of voters living abroad, more liberal in the EU and the United Kingdom, but more conservative in the United States, might be key. Similarly, the role to be played the newly created Chamber in the Supreme Court – suspected not to be independent and impartial – in charge of deciding any electoral litigations will become relevant. Finally, the weight of public media, characterized until now by Duda’s glorification and Trzaskowski’s demonization, will also be very important. In yesterday’s coverage of the election night Trzaskowski was simply absent, as Polish Public TV dedicated seven times more time to broadcasting Duda’s victory speech in comparison to Trzaskowski’s intervention. Attacks on the opposition candidate are not expected to end before the second round though, as one of his campaign promises is to close down important sections of the public TV, accused of being biased and using an intolerant rhetoric.

These are some of the reasons why the next round of the presidential elections scheduled for July 12th should be followed closely. If Duda stays in office, Poland’s gradual democratic backsliding will continue until the next legislative elections in 2023. However, if Trzaskowski wins, these elections might prove to be a turning point in Polish democratic history, bringing the country back to the club of consolidated European democracies where it belongs.

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