The Polish Politics Blog

Analysis of the contemporary Polish political scene

What are the prospects for the Polish opposition?

The Polish liberal-centrist opposition’s future prospects depend critically upon how Warsaw’s mayor builds on the political capital derived from his strong presidential election challenge. But there are question marks over his proposed new civic movement’s relationship with the main opposition party, and he faces a challenge from an insurgent TV presenter-turned-politician, and strategic dilemmas over which model of opposition to adopt and how to develop an attractive alternative programme.

Mr Trzaskowski’s strong challenge

In July, incumbent Andrzej Duda – who was backed by the ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s ruling party since autumn 2015 – defeated Warsaw mayor Rafał Trzaskowski – the candidate of the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), the governing party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping – in a presidential election second round run-off by 51% to 49%. The opposition now faces a three-year period of difficult soul-searching until the next elections and Law and Justice has a clear run in control of all the main state institutions to continue implementing its radical state reconstruction programme. However, Mr Duda’s narrow margin of victory also shows that the opposition retains a sizeable base of support, especially in the larger towns and cities, and among well-educated, better-off, and (increasingly) younger Poles. At the same time, Mr Trzaskowski’s result confirmed that Civic Platform continues to be the main challenger to the ruling party.

When the election, originally scheduled for mid-May, was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, Mr Trzaskowski replaced Civic Platform’s struggling presidential candidate Małgorzata Kidawa-Blońska, who had seen her poll ratings slump to single figures. Mrs Kidawa-Błońska’s disastrous campaign provided an opportunity for other opposition candidates to emerge as the main challenger to Mr Duda. At one point, it appeared that this would be Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz, the leader of the agrarian-centrist Polish Peasant Party (PSL) which, heading up the broader centre-right ‘Polish Coalition’ (KP) electoral bloc, had performed surprisingly well in the most recent October 2019 parliamentary election securing 8.6% of the votes. However, Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz’s campaign failed to take-off and he ended up with only 2.4%. Similarly, although the ‘Left’ (Lewica) electoral alliance finished third in the 2019 election with 12.6% of the votes, regaining parliamentary representation after a four-year hiatus, the grouping’s presidential candidate, sexual minorities campaigner Robert Biedroń, also secured an extremely disappointing 2.2%. Mr Trzaskowski, on the other hand, proved to be a much more formidable campaigner and, picking up Civic Platform voters who were planning to abstain or vote for another candidate, quickly regained the mantle of main opposition challenger, securing 30.5% in the first round, and then almost defeated Mr Duda in the run-off.

‘New Solidarity’

The liberal-centrist opposition’s future prospects depend critically on how Mr Trzaskowski builds upon this enormous political capital. For sure, the opposition retains several important political assets, notably: a strong local government base, substantial financial resources and the backing of much of the privately-owned media, as well as significant influence within, and widespread support from, Poland’s cultural, legal and business elites, together with the sympathy of the EU political establishment and international opinion-forming media. At the same time, the socio-economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has put a huge strain upon Law and Justice’s ability to deliver on its popular programme of expanding social spending and welfare policies while maintaining strong economic growth and reducing the budget deficit.

In order to broaden the opposition’s base of support, Mr Trzaskowski is planning to launch a new civic movement at the beginning of September provisionally called ‘New Solidarity’ (Nowa Solidarność), based on the title of his election programme where he set out his socio-economic and public spending priorities for Poland at a time of crisis. The name is also an allusion to the 10-million strong original 1980-81 manifestation of the legendary anti-communist Solidarity trade union and social movement; Mr Trzaskowski’s 49% vote share corresponded to more than 10 million votes. The concept is rather vague at present but appears to involve building a civic movement allied to Civic Platform but focused primarily on local government leaders, in order to attract support from Poles who oppose Law and Justice but do not identify with the current opposition groupings or traditional party politics more generally.

Maintaining momentum will be difficult

However, although Mr Trzaskowski is now Poland’s most popular opposition politician it will be very difficult for him to maintain the momentum from his presidential campaign for the next three years. Mr Trzaskowski is not a member of parliament, which will continue to be the main arena for political contestation and debate. Although the post of Warsaw mayor gives him a high profile political platform Mr Trzaskowski’s performance of this role will now come under much more intense national scrutiny. It will be a major challenge for him to combine this post with the role of de facto national opposition leader: if he devotes too much time to building up his new civic movement then he will inevitably be criticised for neglecting his mayoral responsibilities. Indeed, there are question marks over whether Mr Trzaskowski actually has the staying power to stick with the civic movement project for such a long haul.

Moreover, it is a convenient myth that Mr Trzaskowski personally secured the support of 10 million voters. His second round base of support was actually very heterogeneous and united around Mr Trzaskowski primarily as a means of voting out the Law and Justice-backed incumbent. This makes it very difficult for Mr Trzaskowski to craft a programmatic appeal and ideological platform that such a diverse group of voters can identify with. ‘New Solidarity’ is certainly an attractive label but it is unclear what precise organisational form it will take. Beneath the packaging, the new movement could simply be a vehicle for maintaining Civic Platform’s hegemony over the rest of the opposition; indeed, some commentators argue that the party is actually more interested in achieving this objective than defeating Law and Justice. More broadly, it is very difficult to build a genuine grassroots civic movement from the top-down. Successful ones generally emerge spontaneously driven by new ideas, issues or interests that are not being articulated in mainstream politics. In post-communist Poland, they have often been very transitory phenomena. For example, following a brief period when it organised a number of large street demonstrations, the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), an earlier attempt to build a broad grassroots anti-Law and Justice civic movement during the previous 2015-19 parliament, fizzled out very quickly.

Any political strategy aimed at using Mr Trzaskowski’s presidential election vote to expand the opposition’s base must also include revamping Civic Platform. Although it remains Poland’s main opposition grouping, Civic Platform has a very negative image because of its association with the previous unpopular administration which Poles rejected decisively in 2015. Not surprisingly, Mr Trzaskowski tried (not entirely successfully) to hide his party affiliation during the presidential election campaign even though he is one of Civic Platform’s deputy leaders. However, Civic Platform made a poor start in its efforts to re-build public trust when, in August, it was completely wrong-footed by Law and Justice which persuaded it to vote in favour of a draft law substantially increasing salaries and expenses for parliamentarians and other government and public officials. Given that Poland is currently facing a major economic downturn this led to a huge backlash even among commentators sympathetic to the opposition (in the event, the proposal was abandoned when Civic Platform U-turned and the opposition-controlled Senate rejected it).

Moreover, it will be difficult for Mr Trzaskowski to reform Civic Platform to fit in with his own political project unless he can develop an effective working relationship with party leader Borys Budka. Mr Budka’s leadership position is very insecure and was only saved by Mr Trzaskowski’s relatively good presidential election performance, so he is wary that the Warsaw mayor’s plans could further undermine his authority within the opposition camp. Being manoeuvred into supporting the draft law on increasing public officials’ salaries put Mr Budka’s troubled leadership in further doubt and it is likely that he will be replaced as Civic Platform parliamentary caucus leader in the autumn.

Mr Hołownia’s challenge

The formation of ‘New Solidarity’ is also, in part, an attempt to stymie the challenge to Civic Platform from Szymon Hołownia, the TV presenter, writer and humanitarian activist known for his liberal Catholic views, who stood as an independent candidate in the presidential election. In fact, although Mr Hołownia’s campaign was very professionally managed – and his programme contained an eye-catching mix of policies focusing on environmental protection, national security, social solidarity, healthcare and raising standards in public life – it developed little traction until the coronavirus pandemic crisis turned conventional politics on its head. By precipitating a shift from traditional campaigning – where local grassroots organisation, financial resources, and access to the traditional media favoured candidates from the more established parties – to political communication primarily through the Internet and social media, the crisis played to Mr Hołownia’s strengths as a skilled direct-to-camera performer, and some polls even suggested that he could defeat Mr Duda in a second round run-off. Although Mr Trzaskowski’s entry into the race limited Mr Hołownia’s scope for picking up disillusioned Civic Platform voters, the TV presenter was still able to make an attractive pitch to the many Poles who craved a ‘new’ non-party candidate, and finished a strong third with 13.9%.

Mr Hołownia is now using his presidential election success as a springboard to create his own political movement, provisionally called ‘Poland 2050’ (Polska 2050) to indicate a time horizon of more than one generation. However, Mr Hołownia’s plans (like Mr Trzaskowski’s) appear rather vague and it will also be very difficult for him to maintain political momentum and media interest without parliamentary representation. In fact, Mr Hołownia is not the first charismatic individual who has tried to shake-up the Polish political scene in recent years. Such groupings have typically received an early poll boost, and sometimes gone on to secure parliamentary representation, before quickly disintegrating or being absorbed by one of the main parties. An instructive recent example is that of right-wing rock star Paweł Kukiz who, standing as an independent ‘anti-system’ candidate, secured 20% of the votes in the 2015 presidential election. Although his ‘Kukiz’15’ grouping emerged as the third largest following the parliamentary election later that year, it only secured 9% support and within four years he was forced to stand on the Peasant Party’s ‘Polish Coalition’ slate to secure re-election for himself and his closest political allies. In fact, at the end of August, the ‘Ewybory’ website that aggregates voting intention surveys found support for ‘Poland 2050’ running at only 8% compared with 26% for Civic Platform (and 40% for Law and Justice).

Key strategic dilemmas

More broadly, the liberal-centrist opposition faces two key strategic dilemmas. Firstly, the question of how vigorously and comprehensively to oppose Law and Justice’s reform programme and policy agenda? Here it has often sent confusing signals. For example, knowing that a lot of the opposition’s radical anti-Law and Justice rhetoric was off-putting for Poles who feared further political de-stabilisation, during the presidential election Mr Trzaskowski tried to re-assure more moderate conservative-centrist voters by invoking the rhetoric of reconciliation and political unity. On the other hand, the government’s hard core opponents expect a confrontational approach and the ramping up of so-called ‘total’ opposition, reflected in the fact that Civic Platform leaders partially boycotted Mr Duda’s presidential swearing-in ceremony. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, the opposition also has to develop an attractive and convincing programmatic alternative on the socio-economic issues that Poles care most about. Up until now it has been on the defensive on programmatic issues: Mr Trzaskowski only published his (rather thin) presidential election manifesto two days before the first round of voting. To mount an effective challenge it will have to some put some more programmatic flesh on its clever but vague concepts and slogans such as ‘new solidarity’.

What does Andrzej Duda’s presidential election victory mean for Polish politics?

Poland’s right-wing ruling party is hoping that its presidential election victory will encourage domestic and international elites to accept it has a clear three-year run controlling all the levers of state power to continue with its radical state reconstruction programme. The re-elected President also has a huge personal mandate, giving him the potential to carve out a more independent role, but to do so he will need a more distinctive political agenda and stronger support base.

Mobilising small-town provincial Poland

Earlier this month, incumbent Andrzej Duda – who was supported by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s ruling party since autumn 2015 – won a closely-fought presidential election run-off against Warsaw mayor Rafał Trzaskowski – who was backed by the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), the country’s governing party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping – by 51% to 49%. In what was effectively a plebiscite on the Law and Justice government, Mr Duda’s narrow victory was secured on the basis of a 68.2% turnout, the second highest in any election since the return of democracy in 1989, reflecting the fact Poles are evenly divided and polarised in their attitudes towards the ruling party.

Mr Duda’s success was secured by mobilising Law and Justice’s core supporters in small-town provincial Poland where election turnout is traditionally lower. The most significant increase in voting between the first and second rounds was precisely in the smaller towns and rural areas that constitute Law and Justice’s electoral heartlands. Mr Duda made great efforts to reach out to these often-forgotten areas and earlier this year fulfilled his pledge to become the first President to visit every one of Poland’s 380 administrative counties during his term of office.

Mr Duda’s core appeal was as the guarantor of Law and Justice’s extremely popular social spending and welfare programmes directed especially at poorer families and households who felt frustrated that they had not shared sufficiently in Poland’s post-communist economic transformation. This was part of a claim that Law and Justice was the first party to show as much respect to citizens living in the provinces as those in larger urban agglomerations, including respecting their more traditional culturally conservative values and views on issues such as the legal status of sexual minorities. Mr Duda’s appeal, therefore, dovetailed with the party’s broader political project which some commentators term the ‘redistribution of prestige’, whereby ordinary Poles who previously felt themselves to be second-class citizens started to regain a sense of dignity and self-respect.

Completing the judicial overhaul

Mr Duda’s victory is crucially important because it gives Law and Justice a clear three-year run until the next parliamentary election during which time it can continue to push ahead with its radical state reconstruction programme. Given that the ruling party lacks the three-fifths legislative majority required to over-turn a presidential veto, a victory for Mr Duda’s challenger would have been a disaster for Law and Justice, seriously hampering its ability to govern effectively and possibly precipitating an early parliamentary election.

A key priority will be completing the government’s radical but fiercely-contested overhaul of the judicial system, which the liberal-centrist and left-wing opposition, and Poland’s legal establishment, have strongly criticised as an attack on the rule of law and infringement of the key democratic principle of constitutional separation of powers. Warning of a drift towards authoritarian rule, the government’s opponents argue that, by putting judicial appointments under political control, these reforms allowed Law and Justice to pack the courts with its own, hand-picked nominees, and thereby undermined their independence. Law and Justice’s sweeping judicial reforms also triggered an ongoing conflict between Poland and the EU political establishment.

The government’s supporters, on the other hand, argued that the reforms were sorely needed because Polish courts were too slow, deeply inefficient and tolerated frequent irregularities and corrupt practices. Law and Justice believes that, following the country’s flawed transition to democracy in 1989, the judiciary, like many key Polish institutions, was expropriated by an extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite, which then co-opted a new legal establishment that perpetuated its legacy. The judicial elite, they said, operated as a ‘state within a state’ incapable of reforming itself, so making judges and their supervisory organs more accountable to elected bodies was both justifiable and in line with practices in other established democracies. Mr Duda will continue to approve new judicial appointments and legislation preventing any attempts by the legal establishment to block Law and Justice’s reforms. The ruling party may also try and find ways of accelerating judicial turnover by, for example, re-organising the Polish court system.

Gagging critical media or ensuring greater pluralism?

Another highly contentious policy area is likely to be Law and Justice’s plans for media reform. The opposition argues that under Law and Justice Polish public TV has turned into a government propaganda tool, and during the presidential election campaign Mr Trzaskowski called for the scrapping of its news and information service. However, Law and Justice argues that public TV brings greater pluralism to a broader media landscape which it says has an in-built structural bias favouring the liberal-left. It also believes that ensuring media balance in Poland currently depends solely upon Law and Justice retaining influence within public TV. It fears that if there was a change of government not only would Law and Justice lose access to this crucial element of its communication strategy but also that sections of the privately-owned media that are currently adopting a more neutral political stance (such as the Polsat TV station) would quickly revert to their instinctive liberal-left bias. Consequently, Law and Justice will be looking to extend its influence in the privately-owned media.

One means of achieving this are proposals to ‘deconcentrate’ and ‘repolonise’ the media. Law and Justice argues that foreign-owned media conglomerates openly interfered in, and tried to tip the scales in favour of the opposition during, the presidential election. For example, the party was furious when, in the final days of the campaign, Law and Justice felt that Poland’s most popular newspaper ‘Fakt’, which is owned by the German-Swiss Ringier Axel Springer group, reported one of Mr Duda’s presidential pardons involving a child abuse case in a highly misleading way. ‘Deconcentration’ would involve placing limits on a publisher’s share of the media market thereby obliging some foreign-owned concerns to sell their share to Polish companies, possibly including state-owned enterprises or private investors more sympathetic to Law and Justice. The government’s critics argue that such plans would be a pretext for the ruling party to close down critical media and that it would be hard to draw up such legislation without breaking EU law. Law and Justice says that foreign-owned media companies exercise too much influence in Polish internal affairs and such measures would ensure greater media pluralism.

Coming to terms with Law and Justice

Beyond the policy sphere, Law and Justice is banking on the fact that Mr Duda’s victory will encourage the business and cultural elites, and those working in public administration, who may have been hedging their bets up until now to come to terms with the fact that there will be a Law and Justice government controlling all the main state institutions for at least another three years. They will also be hoping that some opposition politicians will defect to the governing camp. This could help Law and Justice increase its narrow five-seat majority in the Sejm, the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament, and regain control of the Senate, Poland’s second chamber which is less powerful but can delay legislation for up to 30 days and block some key appointments. 51 out of 100 Senators are currently aligned with the opposition. The ruling party will also be looking to increase its influence in the country’s 16 regional councils, which play a major role in distributing EU funds and are a key source of local party patronage but half of which are currently controlled by the opposition.

Law and Justice is hoping that the same process of pragmatic acceptance will play out at the international level, particularly within the EU where, the opposition argues, Poland has been increasingly marginalised during the last five years. In fact, Law and Justice has for some time pursued a twin-track approach to its EU relations. On the one hand, it accepts that there will be disagreements with the EU political establishment on moral-cultural issues, where Law and Justice rejects what it sees as a hegemonic EU liberal-left consensus that undermines Poland’s traditional values and national identity. It argues that policy clashes with the major EU powers are inevitable because Poland often has interests that conflict with the dominant Franco-German axis, and Law and Justice is, the party claims, pursuing a more robust and assertive approach than its predecessors. The party also recognises that the EU political establishment largely agrees with the Polish opposition and legal establishment’s argument that Law and Justice’s actions in areas such as judicial reform are undermining democracy and the rule of law (although it strongly contests these claims).

At the same time, Law and Justice has tried to present Poland as a positive and constructive EU member, arguing that these disagreements do not prevent it from developing normal pragmatic day-to-day working relations on bread-and-butter policy issues. It is now hoping that, for all their political differences, Mr Duda’s victory will help to persuade the EU political establishment to put contentious issues that could undermine broader strategic co-operation with Poland, such as ‘rule of law’ compliance, on the back-burner and develop a positive working relationship with a Law and Justice government that they now know will be in office for at least three years. A key early challenge here for Law and Justice’s EU strategy is its attempt to de-couple systemic ‘rule of law’ compliance (which, Law and Justice argues, is difficult to measure objectively) from the disbursement and management of EU funds. The Polish government appears to have had some initial success on this front at July’s European Council summit negotiations on the next EU budget round and coronavirus recovery fund.

A more autonomous presidency?

Finally, although the election result was extremely close, the very high turnout provides Mr Duda with a huge personal mandate. This, together with the fact that it will be his final presidential term, potentially gives the President much greater room for manoeuvre to carve out a more independent political role for himself. Mr Duda’s biggest weakness during his first term was his vulnerability to the accusation that he was marginalised in key state policy decisions and simply acted as the government’s ‘notary’. Now he could, for example, try and develop some new political initiatives aimed at de-escalating the conflict between the government and opposition. Mr Duda made precisely such an apparently conciliatory gesture when, shortly after polls closed but with his victory not yet confirmed, he invited Mr Trzaskowski to the presidential palace to formally end the campaign with a public handshake.

However, except on a few rare occasions, up until now Mr Duda has not made any serious attempts to develop the kind of distinctive political agenda required to transcend the government-opposition divide. In many ways, this is not surprising as Mr Duda broadly agrees with much of Law and Justice’s critique of the alleged dysfunctionality of the post-communist state and its core institutions; his disagreements are generally over how radical reforms should be and the best means of achieving them. But part of the problem here is also the fact that, up until now, Mr Duda has preferred to surround himself with technocrats rather than experienced political operators. If Mr Duda wants to go beyond occasional disagreements over tactics or the pace of reforms, and carry forward his independent initiatives more effectively, then he will need to develop a much clearer defining concept for his second term, and a stronger intellectual and political support base to carry it forward.

Who will win Poland’s crucial presidential election?

Poland’s presidential election run-off is on a knife-edge. The right-wing incumbent won the first round convincingly and remains narrow favourite as no second placed challenger has ever come from so far behind to win. But his liberal opponent has much greater potential to win over supporters of the defeated first round candidates.

A plebiscite on the ruling party

Poland’s July 12th presidential election run-off is of crucial importance and will determine the shape of the political scene until the next parliamentary poll scheduled for autumn 2023. A victory for incumbent Andrzej Duda – who is supported by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, the ruling party since autumn 2015 – would give the government a three-year run without any national elections to continue implementing its radical state reconstruction programme. However, the ruling party lacks the three-fifths legislative majority required to over-turn a presidential veto so a victory for Mr Duda’s challenger – Warsaw mayor Rafał Trzaskowski who is backed by the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s governing party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping – would be a disaster for Law and Justice, seriously hampering its ability to govern effectively and possibly precipitating an early parliamentary election.

The election was originally scheduled for May 10th, with a second round run-off a fortnight later if no candidate secured more than 50% of the votes. Given his relatively high approval ratings, and the fact that he was Poland’s most trusted politician, Mr Duda was widely assumed to be the favourite. He made great efforts to build up a strong base of support in the often-forgotten parts of small-town, provincial Poland that constitute Law and Justice’s electoral heartland which provided him with enormous political capital going into the campaign. Mr Duda’s core appeal was as the guarantor of Law and Justice’s programme of extremely popular social spending and welfare policies for families and low income households, who felt frustrated that they had not shared sufficiently in Poland’s post-communist transformation, while simultaneously maintaining strong economic growth and reducing the state budget deficit.

Mr Duda’s biggest weakness was his vulnerability to the accusation that he was a partisan President who lacked any political independence and simply acted as the government’s ‘notary’. In many ways this was not surprising as Mr Duda broadly agreed with much of Law and Justice’s critique of the alleged dysfunctionality of the post-communist state and its core institutions; his disagreements were generally over how radical reforms should be and the best means of achieving them. But Mr Duda did not really make any serious attempt to carve out a role for himself as an independent political actor able to transcend the government-opposition divide.

Last autumn’s parliamentary election – when Law and Justice retained its overall majority but lost control of the Senate, Poland’s less powerful second chamber – showed how evenly balanced support for the government and opposition was, with many voters determined to use any opportunity to block the ruling party. Although polls suggested that Mr Duda would easily win the first round of voting with around 40-45% of the vote, the second round run-off was always expected to be extremely closely fought and unpredictable. The opposition’s strategy was to turn the presidential election into a plebiscite on the government by tying Mr Duda as closely as they could to the ruling party. The danger for Mr Duda was that a key group of voters who were positively inclined towards him personally but did not necessarily support Law and Justice would use the election to express their hostility towards the government.

Changing election dynamics

In March, the Coronavirus pandemic crisis changed the dynamics of the presidential campaign and initially Law and Justice benefited from the so-called ‘rally effect’: the inevitable psychological tendency for worried citizens to unite around their political leaders and state institutions as the embodiment of national unity at times of a sudden and dramatic external threat. This strengthened Mr Duda and polls started to show that he could win a clear victory in the first round. In the event, the May election never took place because legislation proposed by Law and Justice that would have introduced universal postal voting to allay public safety concerns was not approved in time due to a split within the governing camp. Subsequently, the Polish parliament agreed a new electoral law that allowed Poles to either vote traditionally in polling stations (which would have to adhere to sanitary standards) or cast postal ballots (which very few chose to), and the first round was re-scheduled for June 28th.

The fact that Mr Duda’s electoral strategy was premised on there being a May poll meant that when the election was postponed he needed to re-invigorate his campaign. Moreover, as the ‘rally effect’ waned the election dynamics once again changed with the economic slowdown arising from the pandemic putting pressure on the state budget and making it difficult for Mr Duda to offer any substantial new social spending and welfare pledges. This forced him to recalibrate his campaign message to claim that Law and Justice was the party best placed to oversee recovery while protecting families and low income households. Mr Duda also argued that only his re-election offered governing stability at a time of ongoing epidemiological and economic crisis, saying that the opposition would simply use the presidency to undermine the government and sabotage its policies.

The election delay also allowed Civic Platform to replace its struggling presidential candidate Małgorzata Kidawa-Blońska, who proved completely unsuited to a national crisis situation and saw her poll ratings slump to single figures. Mr Trzaskowski is a much more formidable campaigner and made an energetic start, quickly regaining the mantle of main opposition challenger and putting Mr Duda on the back foot. Although much of his initial polling surge came from core Civic Platform voters who were planning to abstain or vote for another opposition candidate returning to the fold, it gave his campaign a sense of momentum.

However, Mr Trzaskowski’s credibility among well-educated metropolitan voters, which helped him to quickly re-build Civic Platform’s support, also gave Law and Justice an opportunity to portray him as embodying the urban liberal elites that looked down upon culturally conservative small-town provincial Poland. For example, as part of an effort to both consolidate and mobilise Law and Justice’s core traditionalist electorate and highlight the fact that Mr Trzaskowski was distinctly more liberal on moral-cultural issues than the average Pole, Mr Duda introduced a ‘family charter’ (karta rodziny) that included pledges to not allow same-sex couples to marry or adopt children and ban propagation of what Law and Justice termed ‘LGBT ideology’ in schools and public institutions. Last year, in one of his first high profile policy initiatives as mayor, Mr Trzaskowski signed a declaration which included a proposal to introduce a comprehensive, LGBT-approved sex and anti-discrimination education programme intended to teach children about all aspects of sexuality and sexual behaviour in the city’s schools starting at an early age.

Nonetheless, Mr Trzaskowski worked hard to shake off claims that he was an economic and cultural liberal extremist. He bent over backwards to re-assure Poles that he would not reverse Law and Justice’s popular social spending and welfare policies, while sidestepping moral-cultural issues, speaking instead in general terms about equality and tolerance. Mr Trzaskowski also tried to counter Law and Justice’s accusations that he would sabotage the government by arguing that the President needed to be more independent of the governing party and provide it with constructive opposition.

Wooing the defeated candidates’ supporters

In the event, Mr Duda emerged as the clear first round winner securing 43.5% with Mr Trzaskowski on 30.5%. Mr Duda’s support was roughly the same as Law and Justice’s 2019 vote share but at the higher end of the party’s expectations; some polls had suggested that he could fall below 40%. Mr Trzaskowski scored better than Civic Platform did in 2019 but was hoping to break through the 30% barrier more decisively and reduce Mr Duda’s lead to single figures. To win the run-off, Mr Trzaskowski will have to increase his vote share by twenty percentage points, something no previous Polish presidential challenger has managed to achieve.

Given the scale of this challenge, as well as mobilising even more of this core supporters (difficult, as the 64.5% turnout was already extremely high by Polish standards), Mr Trzaskowski will need to win support among those Poles who voted for other candidates in the first round. In particular, he will have to attract the supporters of the independent TV presenter and liberal-centrist Catholic journalist Szymon Hołownia. By precipitating a shift from traditional campaigning to political communication through the Internet and social media, the pandemic crisis played to Mr Hołownia’s strengths as a skilled direct-to-camera performer. Although Mr Trzaskowski’s entry into the race limited Mr Hołownia’s scope for picking up disillusioned Civic Platform voters, he was still able to make an attractive pitch to the many Poles who craved a ‘new’ non-party candidate, and finished a strong third with 13.9%.

For sure, Mr Hołownia’s success was, in large part, a vote against Law and Justice. By portraying himself as an insurgent candidate of change, Mr Trzaskowski, whose unofficial campaign slogan was ‘we have had enough!’ (mamy dość!), is hoping that he will win over most of the Mr Hołownia’s supporters. However, Mr Hołownia’s endorsement of the Civic Platform candidate was heavily qualified because he also wants to use his presidential election success as a springboard to create a new political movement, ‘Poland 2050’ (Polska 2050). Moreover, it is not clear to what extent Mr Hołownia’s vote represented a more general rejection of the Law and Justice-Civic Platform duopoly. The Ipsos agency’s exit poll found that 31% of abstainers in the 2019 election supported Mr Hołownia, comprising 15% of his total electorate. If many of these end up considering Mr Trzaskowski to be as much a part of the political establishment as Mr Duda then they may simply stay at home. Law and Justice is, therefore, trying to associate Mr Trzaskowski as much as possible with the previous Civic Platform governments in which he held a number of ministerial posts but has, up until now, managed to distance himself from.

Mr Duda, on the other hand, has better prospects of picking up support among those who voted for Krzysztof Bosak, the candidate of the radical right Confederation (Konfederacja) grouping who finished fourth securing 6.8%. For sure, Mr Duda’s defeat would serve the Confederation’s narrow partisan interests because its long-term political project is to challenge Law and Justice on its right flank. Moreover, Mr Bosak’s voters hold radical free market views on economic issues and Mr Trzaskowski has attempted to woo them by promising to veto any government tax increases (although he also pledged to maintain Law and Justice’s costly social welfare policies). However, Mr Duda’s traditionalist-conservative views on moral-cultural issues and promoting Polish national identity and traditions are much more likely to appeal to Mr Bosak’s supporters than Mr Trzaskowski’s cosmopolitan social liberalism.

On a knife-edge

Poland’s presidential election is too-close-to-call with polls showing the two main candidates running neck-and-neck. A larger-than-expected first round victory makes Mr Duda the narrow favourite, but he will need to continue to mobilise and energise his voters in smaller towns and rural areas where turnout is traditionally lower. Although no presidential challenger has ever come from so far behind to win a second round run-off, the government’s opponents in the opposition’s urban heartlands are highly motivated and Mr Trzaskowski appears to have much greater potential to pick up new voters among supporters of the defeated candidates. The key to the election could well be moderate conservatives in provincial towns who are wary about concentrating too much power in the hands of Law and Justice but like Mr Duda personally and need to be convinced that Mr Trzaskowski can offer a vision of the presidency that goes beyond simply opposing the government.

Can Poland’s opposition win the presidential election?

Following its postponement in May, Poland’s presidential election appears to be returning to its pre-pandemic dynamics as a closely-fought plebiscite on the right-wing ruling party. A new liberal-centrist opposition challenger has made an energetic start but the governing party-backed incumbent remains the favourite, albeit narrowly and in spite of the fact that he has lost momentum since the campaign resumed.

A crucial, closely-fought election

Until the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic crisis it was widely assumed that the most significant political event in Poland during the first half of 2020 would be the presidential election, scheduled for May 10th with a second round run-off a fortnight later between the two leading candidates if none secured more than 50% of the votes. The election is crucially important because a victory for incumbent Andrzej Duda – who is supported by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s ruling party since autumn 2015 – would give the government a three-year run without any national elections to continue implementing its programme of radical state reconstruction. However, given that the party lacks the three-fifths legislative majority required to over-turn a presidential veto, Mr Duda’s defeat would seriously hamper Law and Justice’s ability to govern effectively and possibly precipitate an early parliamentary election.

Given his relatively high approval ratings, and the fact that he was Poland’s most trusted politician, Mr Duda was widely assumed to be the favourite. At the same time, however, last autumn’s parliamentary election – when Law and Justice retained its overall majority but lost control of the Senate, Poland’s less powerful second chamber – showed how evenly balanced support for the government and opposition was, with many voters determined to use any opportunity to block the ruling party. Although polls suggested that Mr Duda would easily win the first round, given the deep polarisation of the political scene the second round run-off was expected to be extremely closely-fought and unpredictable.

Benefiting from the ‘rally effect’

However, from the middle of March onwards, the ongoing pandemic crisis changed the dynamics of the presidential election campaign. Initially, Law and Justice and Mr Duda benefited from the so-called ‘rally effect’: the inevitable psychological tendency for worried citizens to unite around their political leaders and state institutions as the embodiment of national unity at times of a sudden and dramatic external threat. Law and Justice actively portrayed Mr Duda as an integral part of the governing camp, giving the impression that the President was on the front-line of the battle against the virus and making him the focus of a number of its daily briefings and key, headline-grabbing announcements of government programmes. As long as the government appeared to be trying to cope as effectively as it could with the crisis this strengthened Mr Duda, and polls started to show that he could win a clear victory in the first round of voting.

In the event, the May 10th election never took place because legislation proposed by Law and Justice that would have introduced universal postal voting to allay public safety concerns was not approved in time due to a split within the governing camp. The Polish State Election Commission (PKW), which is charged with overseeing the electoral process, simply declared the election invalid as there was no possibility to vote for any of the registered candidates. The Polish parliament has now approved new legislation on the organisation of the presidential election that will involve a ‘hybrid’ electoral system: with Poles either voting traditionally in polling stations (which would have to adhere to sanitary standards) or casting postal ballots if they chose to do so. At the time of writing, it is unclear when the election will be held but Law and Justice is determined that it should take place at the end of June so that the newly elected President can be sworn in before Mr Duda’s current term of office expires on August 6th.

Jockeying among the opposition candidates

One of the most interesting features of the presidential election campaign has been the jockeying for position among the opposition candidates as to who would emerge as Mr Duda’s main challenger. This is important because presidential elections have sometimes led to broader re-alignments within the Polish party system. Indeed, the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s ruling party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping, itself emerged following the success of one of its founders, Andrzej Olechowski, in the 2000 presidential poll.

Until the pandemic, Mr Duda’s nearest rival and most likely second round challenger was Civic Platform candidate Małgorzata Kidawa-Blońska who, at one point, was averaging around 25% support in opinion polls. However, even before the crisis changed the nature of the campaign, Mrs Kidawa-Błońska appeared to be a relatively weak candidate. An unimpressive public speaker with poor debating skills, her campaigning style and self-image as an emollient candidate of societal dialogue and reconciliation came across as too aloof and completely unsuited to a crisis situation when more decisive leadership was required. The final nail in her campaign’s coffin was Mrs Kidawa-Błońska’s half-hearted suggestion that a boycott of the May election might be necessary but without herself withdrawing from the race, which simply confused and de-mobilised her already-declining electorate, and her poll ratings slumped to single figures.

Other opposition candidates saw Mrs Kidawa-Błońska’s decline in support as an opportunity to replace her as Mr Duda’s main challenger. The most successful of these turned out to be the independent TV presenter and liberal-centrist Catholic journalist Szymon Hołownia. Before the pandemic crisis turned conventional politics on its head Mr Hołownia’s campaign had developed little traction. However, the shift from traditional campaigning – where local grassroots organisation, financial resources, and access to the traditional media favoured candidates from the more established parties – to political communication primarily through the Internet and social media, levelled the playing field somewhat and played to Mr Hołownia’s strengths as a skilled direct-to-camera performer. As well as mopping up a swathe of disillusioned Civic Platform voters, Mr Hołownia was able to make an attractive pitch as a non-party candidate that the many Poles who craved ‘newness’ at a time of extraordinary politics were looking for. The ‘Ewybory’ website that aggregates voting intention surveys showed his average opinion poll support increasing from only 5% at the end of March to 17.5% in mid-May.

A new, more formidable challenger

According to the revised electoral law, while candidates who were due to contest the May 10th poll can still run for the presidency at the later date new ones will also be able to register. As a consequence, almost as soon as the election was postponed Civic Platform replaced Mrs Kidawa-Błońska with the party-backed Warsaw mayor Rafał Trzaskowski (who also held a number of ministerial positions in the previous government) as its presidential candidate. Mr Trzaskowski is clearly a much more formidable campaigner than Mrs Kidawa-Błońska was, but his initial objective was simply to see off the challenge from Mr Hołownia for the mantle of main opposition challenger to Mr Duda.

Mr Trzaskowski made an energetic start, travelling the country to hold ‘pre-campaign’ meetings and with some clever initiatives that managed to put Law and Justice on the back foot. For example, he capitalised on a row about the fact that ‘Your pain is better than mine’ (‘Twój ból jest lepszy niż mój’), a pop song satirising Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński’s alleged violation of social distancing regulations, was pulled from Polish state radio’s playlists. Mr Trzaskowski used this as a pretext to call for the scrapping of the state TV news and information service which he described as a government propaganda tool (Law and Justice argues that state TV’s current political stance simply brings pluralism and balance to a media landscape otherwise dominated by the party’s opponents). ‘Ewybory’ found Mr Trzaskowski quickly moving clearly ahead of Mr Hołownia into second place, averaging 26.9% support by the end of May.

At the same time, the opposition’s prospects have been boosted by the fact that, as the perception of an immediate health crisis appeared to be subsiding somewhat, Poles started to focus increasingly on the worsening economic situation; one of the reasons why Law and Justice wanted the presidential election to be held as soon as possible. Moreover, health minister Łukasz Szumowski – who, as the widely-praised face of the government’s response to the pandemic crisis, was one of Law and Justice’s most important political assets – found himself embroiled in allegations of conflicts of interests (he vehemently denies any wrongdoing). As a consequence, the government’s approval ratings started to decline and, according to E-wybory, Mr Duda saw his voting support slump from a peak of 62% in mid-April to only 40.1% at the end of May.

Mr Trzaskowski’s strengths and weaknesses

However, much of Mr Trzaskowski’s surge in support almost certainly comes from Civic Platform voters who were planning to abstain but have now returned to the fold to back their party’s candidate. The Warsaw mayor, who is strongly identified with the party’s cultural liberal-left wing, also appears to have drained support from the ‘Left’ (Lewica) candidate Robert Biedroń, whose campaign was already hamstrung by his perceived lack of gravitas; according to E-wybory Mr Biedroń’s poll support has slumped to only 3.8%. Nonetheless, one of Mr Trzaskowski’s greatest strengths, his credibility with urban liberals, is also his biggest weakness because it limits his appeal among voters who live beyond the metropolitan areas and whose support he will need to win. Law and Justice will no doubt portray the urbane Mr Trzaskowski as embodying the aloof and pretentious urban elites who look down upon the inhabitants of small-town provincial Poland. It will also highlight his socially liberal views on moral-cultural issues in order to polarise the campaign and thereby mobilise the core right-wing traditionalist electorate in smaller towns and rural areas where election turnout is traditionally lower.

For sure, the economic downturn undermines Mr Duda’s original core appeal as the guarantor of the Law and Justice government’s programme of hugely expanding very popular social spending and welfare policies while maintaining strong economic growth and reducing the budget deficit. Law and Justice is now recalibrating this message to argue that it is the party best placed to oversee economic recovery through an ongoing programme of state-led reconstruction projects while protecting families and low income households. At the same time, the party says that only Mr Duda’s re-election offers governing stability at a time of ongoing epidemiological and economic crisis, arguing that Mr Trzaskowski and other opposition candidates would simply use the presidency to undermine the Law and Justice government and sabotage its policies. Mr Trzaskowski has tried to counter this by saying that public spending should focus on improving the health service rather than large infrastructure projects and, while also arguing that the President needed to be more independent of the government, downplaying concerns that his election would lead to governing deadlock.

Back to pre-pandemic politics?

With the ‘rally effect’ waning and voters starting to focus more on economic concerns the dynamics of Poland’s presidential election campaign have once again changed. Public attitudes can, of course, shift very rapidly in what remains an extraordinarily fluid and dynamic political situation. But, in many ways, the election has simply returned to more familiar pre-pandemic tracks: an evenly balanced and closely fought plebiscite on the Law and Justice government in which Mr Duda remains the narrow favourite. The President’s electoral strategy was premised on there being a May election, and he has clearly lost momentum since it was postponed and needs to re-invigorate his campaign; while Mr Trzaskowski has made an energetic and dynamic start and put Mr Duda on the back-foot. But to win the opposition will need to come up with a convincing programmatic alternative on the socio-economic issues that Poles care most about, not just clever public relations stunts that dominate the news cycle for a couple of days.

Will the Polish government collapse?

As well as having to tackle an epidemiological crisis, Poland’s right-wing government is in danger of losing its parliamentary majority following a bitter dispute over the timing of the country’s presidential election. But although the decomposition of the governing camp could herald a major political re-alignment, it is difficult to see a stable alternative administrative emerging in the current parliament.

A crucial election

The Polish government, led by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, is facing its biggest political crisis since it came to office in autumn 2015, precipitated by a dispute over whether the forthcoming presidential election should go ahead in spite of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The election was originally scheduled for May 10th with a second round run-off a fortnight later between the two leading candidates if none secured more than 50% of the votes. It is crucially important because a victory for Law and Justice-backed incumbent Andrzej Duda would give the government a three-year run without any national elections. However, given that the party lacks the three-fifths legislative majority required to over-turn a presidential veto, Mr Duda’s defeat would seriously hamper Law and Justice’s ability to govern effectively.

Given his relatively high approval ratings and the fact that he was Poland’s most trusted politician, Mr Duda was widely assumed to be the favourite. At the same time, however, last autumn’s parliamentary election – when Law and Justice retained its overall majority but lost control of the Senate, Poland’s less powerful second chamber – showed how evenly balanced support for the government and opposition was, with many voters determined to use any opportunity to block the ruling party. Although polls suggested that Mr Duda would easily win the first round, given the deep polarisation of the political scene the second round run-off was expected to be extremely closely-fought and unpredictable.

However, since the middle of March the coronavirus pandemic has completely overshadowed all other aspects of Polish public life. The government and President have been strengthened by the inevitable psychological tendency for worried citizens to unite around their political leaders and state institutions when they feel that they face a sudden and dramatic external threat. Mr Duda has thus seen a surge in popularity, with the ‘Ewybory’ website that aggregates voting intention surveys, showing him averaging 51% in polls conducted during the last month and 57% in the last two weeks.

Will the election be safe and fair?

All the main opposition candidates have called for the election to be postponed arguing that holding a free, fair and informed poll was impossible during a pandemic because the government’s social distancing measures made normal political campaigning impossible. At the same time, they said that Mr Duda had an unfair advantage because Law and Justice made him the focus of a number of its headline-grabbing announcements of government programmes. More broadly, the opposition argued that it was impossible to conduct a normal election at a time of epidemiological emergency on public health and logistical grounds. They called upon the government to declare a ‘state of natural disaster’ (stan klęski żywiołowej), the mildest of the three sets of extraordinary measures set out in the Constitution which lasts for up to 30 days (when it has to be renewed by parliament) after which no election can be held for at least three months.

However, Law and Justice insisted that the election be held according to the planned schedule. The party argues that postponing it would de-stabilise the political system at a time of crisis as the opposition would question Mr Duda’s mandate after his term of office expires on August 6th. It says that the Constitution does not provide explicitly for the delay of an election and declaring a state of natural disaster as a legal step to trigger an automatic postponement of the presidential poll, when the government does not need these additional powers, would have severe implications for the possible curtailment of civil liberties and leave the state liable for huge compensation claims. Law and Justice accused the opposition of conflating Mr Duda’s duties as President with election campaigning and argued that restrictions on public meetings also hit the incumbent as these were one of his most effective campaign tools. It said the opposition was calling for a postponement out of self-interest, in an attempt to de-legitimate an election that they knew they will lose.

Law and Justice also responded to concerns that going ahead with a normal election would pose health risks by introducing a draft law stipulating that the presidential poll be held by universal postal voting. The opposition argue that introducing such a major change so close to an election is unconstitutional (Law and Justice disputes this). They say that although the health risks are reduced by postal voting they are still considerable. The opposition also argue that there is no comparable example of postal voting on this scale anywhere in the world and that the short time left to prepare such a complex logistical operation leaves it open to fraud and abuse. These practical problems are exacerbated by the fact that the draft law is languishing in the opposition-controlled Senate which has the power to delay legislation for up to 30 days. Although the Sejm, the more powerful lower chamber, can override its amendments the legislation may not come into force until a few days before the first round of voting. Trying to hold an election in such circumstances, the opposition warns, risks undermining its credibility which could have huge consequences for the political system and national stability in such a divided and polarised country.

Law and Justice accepts that universal postal voting is not ideal but argues that many of the opposition’s arguments that it could spread the virus are misleading. The party says that technical solutions can be found to solve possible electoral fraud, while the risk of constitutional uncertainty and instability caused by delaying the election would lead to even greater problems. Law and Justice points to examples from other European countries, notably Bavaria in Germany, where local elections have taken place safely using mail-in ballots whose validity was not questioned. The party also points out that the new law contains provisions whereby the Sejm speaker, who is responsible for determining the timing of presidential polls, could postpone the election date to give the government more time to make the necessary preparations, as long as it is held within the requirements set out in the Polish Constitution (so up until May 23rd).

Mr Gowin’s challenge

However, it is far from clear that the government’s postal voting proposals will be approved, following the emergence of a split within the governing camp which led to the resignation of higher education minister and deputy prime minister Jarosław Gowin. Mr Gowin made it clear that, although he was not opposed to a postal election in principle, he did not believe that that there was sufficient time for it to go ahead in May. The government’s Sejm majority (235 out of 460 seats) actually comprises the ‘United Right’ (ZP) electoral alliance of which Law and Justice is simply the largest component and includes 18 deputies from the liberal-conservative ‘Agreement’ (Porozumienie) party led by Mr Gowin. Mr Gowin’s preferred solution was to extend Mr Duda’s mandate for two years – when, he argued, it would be safe to hold a normal election – with the proviso that the incumbent would not be able to run for another term. However, although Law and Justice supported this idea it failed to win the backing of opposition parties whose support was required to amend the Constitution.

In the event, although Mr Gowin and several ‘Agreement’ deputies withheld their votes, enough of his party colleagues supported the draft postal voting law for the Sejm to pass it narrowly. Indeed, the party is divided on how to proceed and, for the moment, remains within the governing camp, recommending development minister Jadwiga Emilewicz, one of its vice-chairs, to replace Mr Gowin as deputy prime minister. Interestingly, in a widely-anticipated statement the hugely popular ‘Agreement’-nominated health minister Łukasz Szumowski said that the earliest that a traditional election could be held safely was 2021, but that if political parties could not agree on this then he accepted the principle of postal voting as the only safe way to conduct such a poll. Nonetheless, he did not comment on whether the technical requirements to make the poll safe and fraud-proof could be fulfilled by May, simply saying that there was no better or worse date on medical grounds.

Mr Gowin is the first leading politician in the governing camp to openly challenge the authority of Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński, who appears determined to push ahead with a May presidential poll. Mr Kaczyński does not hold any formal state positions but exercises powerful behind-the-scenes influence in determining the government’s programmatic and strategic priorities, and acceptance of his hegemony has been the main guarantor of the governing camp’s continued political unity and cohesion. The key question that could determine whether Law and Justice still has a parliamentary majority is, therefore: what will happen to the postal voting law when returns it to the Sejm on May 6th and 7th? Mr Gowin will need the support of only four other ‘Agreement’ deputies to prevent any Senate amendments from being over-turned and thereby block the proposal passing into law; he currently appears to have around eight.

Beyond that, there is the question of how many of Mr Gowin’s allies would be prepared to follow him if he were to formally leave the governing camp? Mr Gowin has been negotiating with the opposition parties and is clearly mulling various options. There have been suggestions that he is working on a plan that would elect him as Sejm speaker, which would make it extremely difficult for Law and Justice to manage parliamentary business effectively, in exchange for helping to install an alternative government supported by the opposition parties. As part of this, Mr Gown may be floating the idea of building a new centre-right political formation allied with the agrarian-centrist Polish Peasant Party (PSL), whose popular leader Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz appears to be emerging as the main opposition challenger to Mr Duda in the presidential election.

No stable alternative majority?

Mr Gowin’s assertion of political autonomy has thus made him a pivotal figure in Polish politics. But he now has to make a key choice: whether to retreat from his previous, seemingly unequivocal stance that the May election should not take place, or vote against the postal voting law, thereby risking bringing down the government at an extremely difficult moment for the Polish state? In fact, regardless of what happens with the postal voting law it is difficult to see Mr Gowin coming back into the fold now that his conflict with Mr Kaczyński is so out in the open. The decomposition of the ‘United Right’ project in its current form will, therefore, not only mean that that government will no longer be able to rely on a small but stable parliamentary majority, it could also lead to a major re-alignment in Polish politics.

However, one reason why Mr Gowin’s colleagues may be reluctant to break from the governing camp is that a Law and Justice-led administration is the only one that can guarantee a stable majority in the current parliament. To secure even a minimal majority any alternative government would have to encompass an incredibly wide range of parties ranging from the radical left to right. An indication of how difficult it will be to form such a coalition is the fact that the ‘Left’ (Lewica) parliamentary caucus has so far refused to participate in any formal negotiations with Mr Gowin. The stakes are, therefore, very high and Mr Gowin knows that leaving the governing camp at this time risks him being held responsible for triggering a governing and constitutional crisis, compounding the huge health and economic difficulties that the country already faces.

How is the Coronavirus pandemic affecting Polish politics?

Although Polish public attention has been focused entirely on the effects of the pandemic, political calculations are still being made behind-the-scenes and there is a fierce debate about whether the May presidential election should go ahead as scheduled. So far the government and right-wing ruling party-backed President have benefited from the ‘rally effect’ of increased support for political leaders at times of sudden external threat but this could change rapidly if the public feels they are not handling the crisis competently.

A crucial, unpredictable election

Until a few weeks ago, it was assumed that Polish politics in the first half of 2020 would be dominated by the crucially important presidential election, scheduled for May 10th with a second round run-off a fortnight later between the two leading candidates if none secured more than 50% of the votes. A victory for incumbent Andrzej Duda – who is supported by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s ruling party since autumn 2015 – would have given the government a three-year run without any national elections to continue implementing its programme of radical state reconstruction. However, given that the party lacks the three-fifths legislative majority required to over-turn a presidential veto, Mr Duda’s defeat would have seriously hampered Law and Justice’s ability to govern effectively and possibly precipitated an early parliamentary election.

Given his relatively high approval ratings and the fact that he was Poland’s most trusted politician, Mr Duda was widely assumed to be the favourite. At the beginning of March, the ‘Ewybory’ website that aggregates voting intention surveys found him averaging 42% support, nearly twenty points ahead of his nearest rival Małgorzata Kidawa-Blońska, the candidate of the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s ruling party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping. Polls also suggested that Mr Duda would defeat all potential challengers in a second round run-off, albeit by a much narrower margin.

At the same time, however, last autumn’s parliamentary election – when Law and Justice retained its overall majority but lost control of the Senate, Poland’s less powerful second chamber – showed how polarised and evenly balanced support for the government and opposition was, with many voters determined to use any opportunity to block the ruling party. Indeed, the opposition’s strategy was to turn the presidential election into a plebiscite on the Law and Justice government by tying Mr Duda as closely as they could to the party. Although Law and Justice continued to enjoy a clear opinion poll lead, the government was feeling the strain of having been in office for four-and-a-half years and the second round run-off was expected to be extremely closely-fought and unpredictable no matter how weak the opposition candidate was.

Benefiting from the ‘rally effect’

However, since the middle of March public attention has, for obvious reasons, been entirely focused on the government’s actions to limit the spread of Coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, while there has been practically no formal election campaigning Mr Duda has attracted a huge amount of media coverage by simply fulfilling his state duties as President: convening meetings of the National Security Council (RBN), travelling around the country checking on coronavirus preparations, and making TV appearances at border checkpoints, hospitals, and foodbanks. Moreover, Law and Justice has actively portrayed Mr Duda as an integral part of the governing camp. Giving the impression that the President was on the front-line of the battle against the virus, the government has made Mr Duda the focus of a number of its daily briefings and key, headline-grabbing announcements of government programmes – such as the 212 billion złoties ‘anti-crisis shield’ (tarcza antykryzysowa) of measures to help deal with the pandemic’s economic consequences – even though he lacks formal competencies in many of these areas.

For their part, opposition presidential candidates have accused Law and Justice of trying to exploit the crisis to secure Mr Duda’s re-election arguing that, while his state presidential duties are often very difficult to separate out from election campaigning, the government’s social distancing restrictions have made it practically impossible for them to meet with voters directly. At the same time, the opposition has found it extremely difficult to contribute meaningfully to public debate. This is partly because it lacks any formal policy instruments to tackle the crisis, but also because if the opposition is too critical of the government then it leaves itself open to charges of engaging in partisan politics at a time when the country faces an unprecedented epidemiological crisis. On the other hand, if Law and Justice’s opponents adopt a too conciliatory approach they risk being completely side-lined.

In the longer term, Law and Justice will be held to account for any perceived shortcomings in its handling of the crisis – particularly if it is felt that the health service was not coping effectively or the government was failing to tackle the negative socio-economic consequences of the quarantine measures – and this could damage Mr Duda. For sure, Law and Justice has increased health expenditure in recent years, and pledged to continue to do so in the future. But the party’s critics argue that the health service remains under-funded and under-staffed because the government has neglected it in order to finance its generous social and welfare programmes. The government’s opponents also argue that these large fiscal transfers have left the public finances exposed at a time when it has to find extra funds to deal with the pandemic’s economic fallout. Law and Justice supporters, on the other hand, say that, as a result of closing tax loopholes, until the crisis emerged the government was actually on track to post a balanced budget this year.

However, in the short-term Mr Duda and the ruling party are benefiting from an increase in public support driven by an inevitable psychological tendency for worried citizens to unite around their political leaders and institutions as the embodiment of national unity when they feel that they face a dramatic external threat – a concept political scientists call the ‘rally effect’. For example, a March survey by the Kantar agency for the ‘Gazeta.pl’ news service found that 73% of respondents evaluated the government’s response to the pandemic favourably and only 23% did so unfavourably. Mr Duda has also seen an increase in his poll lead: the ‘Ewbyory’ website found him averaging 48% support in opinion surveys conducted during last fortnight compared with only 17% for Mrs Kidawa-Błońska. As long as the government appears to be broadly on top of, and trying to cope as effectively as it can with, the crisis it will, for the moment at least, continue to politically strengthen Mr Duda and the governing camp.

Fierce debate over election timing

Nonetheless, the acceleration of the virus and increasingly restrictive measures being introduced by the government to avoid its spread, have provoked a fierce debate as to whether the presidential election should still go ahead at all. All of the main opposition candidates have now come down in favour of postponing the poll, arguing that the country is in a de facto state of emergency which makes normal election campaigning virtually impossible. They accuse Law and Justice of sacrificing Poles’ health for political gain by proceeding with an election when it is dangerous to do so, and say that all the authorities’ energies should be directed at fighting the virus and keeping the economy afloat. Indeed, at the end of March Mrs Kidawa-Błońska completely suspended her campaign and called for a boycott of the election, although no other opposition candidate has yet followed her lead.

However, for the moment Law and Justice has refused to yield to opposition demands and insists that the election will be held according to the planned scheduled, arguing that postponing it now would be premature and de-stabilise the political system at a time of crisis. They accuse the opposition of disingenuousness in conflating Mr Duda’s state duties with election campaigning and argue that he too is disadvantaged by the restrictions on large public meetings with voters given that this was one of his most effective campaigning tools. Law and Justice argues that the opposition is calling for the presidential poll to be postponed out of self-interest and in an attempt to de-legitimate an election that they know they will lose, and, according to some commentators, give themselves time to re-group and find a stronger candidate than Mrs Kidawa-Błońska.

Nonetheless, notwithstanding arguments about whether the conditions exist to conduct a meaningful election campaign, some commentators have argued that it will simply be technically impossible to conduct an election at a time of epidemiological emergency. They warn that trying to hold it in such circumstances risks undermining the election’s credibility which, given that democracy is based on trust in state institutions and electoral procedures, could have huge consequences for the Polish political system and national stability in such a politically divided and polarised country. Organising elections is a huge logistical challenge, that in Poland involves around a quarter-of-a-million (often elderly) people who have to be trained (usually in large groups) to staff thousands of local election commissions. Moreover, many Poles currently live abroad in ‘locked down’ countries and will find themselves barred from voting, while older and more vulnerable voters are still likely to be quarantined in May, while many others will be self-isolating or simply not wish to take the risk of taking part. To tackle this problem, the Polish parliament is considering a Law and Justice-sponsored amendment to the electoral code to give all citizens the option of a postal vote; although the opposition argues that introducing such a change so close to an election is unconstitutional.

In fact, Law and Justice says that it is continually reviewing the situation and some of its leaders, including Mr Duda, acknowledge that holding a May election could be an unsustainable health risk if the pandemic is ranging and national quarantine regulations are still in place. Although it appears increasingly likely that the government will, indeed, postpone the presidential poll a final decision on this is unlikely to be taken until after the Easter break. The judgement of Poland’s currently hugely popular health minister Łukasz Szumowski is likely to be a crucial factor in this.

Indeed, the ruling party could be playing hard ball on the question of election timing so that it can negotiate the most favourable terms for any delay. The government’s supporters believe that scheduling the election in the autumn, which the opposition is calling for, could be extremely problematic because the coming months are likely to bring an economic slowdown, if not outright recession. Some of them, therefore, favour a longer, one year delay so that the government can tackle the aftermath of the crisis before Mr Duda has to face the voters. However, there is currently no provision in the Polish Constitution for introducing such a long delay in one go, so Law and Justice requires the co-operation of opposition parties to secure this.

Political calculations still matter

The Coronavirus pandemic has completely overshadowed and profoundly affected all aspects of Polish politics and public life, rendering earlier government and opposition presidential election campaign talking points and debates irrelevant. Nonetheless, political calculations are still being made intensively behind-the-scenes by both sides, including on the timing of the election. Public evaluations of the ruling party and Mr Duda will ultimately be determined by whether or not the government is felt to have handled the crisis competently. These could change very rapidly if the pandemic gets much worse and the health service is severely tested or when the effects of the quarantine restrictions start to take their full toll on the economy. However, for the moment at least, Law and Justice and Mr Duda have garnered strong support from Poles for their apparently decisive and tough response to the crisis and benefited politically from the inevitable ‘rally effect’ of increased backing for political leaders and state institutions at times of sudden external threat.

Can Andrzej Duda lose the Polish presidential election?

Given his credibility in helping deliver the government’s popular social spending and welfare policies – and strong base in small-town, provincial Poland – the right-wing incumbent starts as favourite in May’s crucial presidential election. But his fortunes are linked to the ruling party’s popularity and, given how polarised and evenly divided the Polish political scene is, the election will be closely-fought and unpredictable.

Two evenly balanced camps

Notwithstanding the as-yet-unpredictable impact of the Coronavirus epidemic, over the next couple of months Polish politics will be dominated by the crucially important May 10th presidential election, with a second round run-off held a fortnight later between the two leading candidates if none secures more than 50% of the votes. The election is likely to determine the shape of the political scene until the next parliamentary poll scheduled for autumn 2023. A victory for incumbent Andrzej Duda – who is supported by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s ruling party since autumn 2015 – would give the government a three-year run without any national elections to continue implementing its programme of radical state reconstruction. However, given that the party lacks the three-fifths legislative majority required to over-turn a presidential veto, Mr Duda’s defeat would be a disaster for Law and Justice seriously hampering its ability to govern effectively and possibly precipitating an early parliamentary election.

Most commentators assumed Mr Duda would win easily given his high levels of popularity. A February survey conducted by the CBOS polling agency found that he enjoyed a 60% approval rating, the highest of any Polish politician, while 57% were satisfied with the way that he was performing his duties (although both of these have fallen in recent months). The ‘Ewybory’ website that aggregates voting intention surveys found Mr Duda averaging 42% support, nearly twenty points ahead of his nearest rival Małgorzata Kidawa-Blońska, the candidate of the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s ruling party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping. Polls also suggest that Mr Duda would defeat all potential challengers in a second round run-off, albeit by a much narrower margin.

However, five years ago Mr Duda’s Civic Platform-backed predecessor Bronisław Komorowski enjoyed even higher approval ratings but failed to secure re-election. Moreover, last autumn’s parliamentary election – when Law and Justice retained its overall majority but lost control of the Senate, Poland’s less powerful second chamber – showed how polarised and evenly balanced support for the government and opposition is, with many voters determined to use any opportunity to block the ruling party. The presidential poll will, therefore, be a much greater challenge for Mr Duda than previously anticipated.

Mr Duda’s assets

One of Mr Duda’s strengths is that he is an energetic and dynamic campaigner who can connect with ordinary Poles and has made great efforts to reach out to the often-forgotten parts of small-town, provincial Poland that constitute Law and Justice’s electoral heartland. Earlier this year, Mr Duda fulfilled his pledge to become the first President to visit every one of Poland’s 380 administrative counties during his term of office. This vision of the presidency, showing as much respect to citizens living in smaller towns and rural areas as those in larger urban agglomerations, provided Mr Duda with enormous political capital going into the campaign. It dovetails with Law and Justice’s broader political project which some commentators term the ‘redistribution of prestige’, whereby ordinary Poles who previously felt themselves to be second-class citizens started to regain a sense of dignity and self-respect.

Mr Duda’s core appeal is as the guarantor of the Law and Justice government’s programme of so-called ‘good change’ (dobra zmiana). This has involved hugely expanding social spending and welfare policies for families and low income households who felt frustrated that they had not shared sufficiently in Poland’s post-communist transformation, while simultaneously maintaining strong economic growth and reducing the state budget deficit. His supporters also point to Mr Duda’s apparent foreign and defence policy successes, particularly in developing closer ties with the USA. Although these areas lie primarily within the government’s domain, the Constitution gives the President an informal oversight and co-ordinating role, and he is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Law and Justice argues that Mr Duda played a key role in strengthening Poland’s defence infrastructure through the additional deployment of US and NATO troops on Polish territory. They also credit him with the lifting of the requirement for Poles visiting the USA to obtain visas, which Polish governments have campaigned for for many years.

Mr Duda is fortunate that Mrs Kidawa-Błońska – who, unless there is a major change in the campaign dynamics, is very likely to be his second round challenger – appears to be a relatively weak opponent. She was originally chosen as Civic Platform’s prime ministerial candidate in last autumn’s parliamentary election because of her reputation as an emollient and conciliatory political figure. But Mrs Kidawa-Błońska’s critics argue that she lacks any significant achievements in spite of her many years in politics and is an unimpressive public speaker with untested debating skills. The election campaign is likely to be a very brutal but if she tries to adopt a more combative approach this could undermine her image as the candidate of societal dialogue and reconciliation. Moreover, although Mrs Kidawa-Błońska undoubtedly comes across as sophisticated and urbane, critics say that she also embodies the aloof urban liberal elites who, Law and Justice claims, look down upon the inhabitants of small-town provincial Poland. More broadly, Law and Justice accuse Mrs Kidawa-Błońska of lacking an alternative programmatic vision, arguing that she would simply use the presidency to sabotage the government.

Another plebiscite on Law and Justice?

However, Mr Duda will almost certainly not win in the first round and, given how divided and polarised the political scene is, no matter how weak the opposition candidate the second round is likely to be extremely closely-fought and unpredictable. Civic Platform knows that Mrs Kidawa-Błońska is not an ideal candidate but political marketing specialists are already working hard to minimise her weaknesses as a communicator. Ironically, although she has been part of the party establishment for many years, Mrs Kidawa-Błońska’s lack of any real governing experience means that she is not as clearly identified in the public mind with the previous, discredited Civic Platform-led administrations. Moreover, the opposition retains several important political assets including: substantial financial resources and the backing of much of the privately-owned media, as well as significant influence within, and widespread support from, Poland’s cultural, legal and business elites.

Mr Duda’s biggest weakness is his vulnerability to the accusation that throughout his presidency he has been marginalised in key state policy decisions and simply acted as the government’s ‘notary’. In many ways this is not surprising as Mr Duda broadly agrees with much of Law and Justice’s critique of the alleged dysfunctionality of the post-communist state and its core institutions; his disagreements are generally over how radical reforms should be and the best means of achieving them. But Mr Duda cannot simply rely on the support of the Law and Justice core electorate and to attract more than 50% of the votes needs to craft a broader appeal. Except for one occasion – in July 2017, when he vetoed two of the government’s flagship judicial reform laws (and even then the revised versions that he proposed were very close to the originals) – Mr Duda has not really made any serious attempts to carve out a role for himself as an independent political actor able to transcend the government-opposition divide. More broadly, critics argue that Mr Duda’s presidency lacks a clear defining concept and he has been ineffective in both carrying forward any independent political initiatives and developing a strong intellectual and political support base, preferring instead to surround himself with technocrats.

Indeed, the opposition’s strategy is to turn the election into a plebiscite on the Law and Justice government by tying Mr Duda as closely as they can to the ruling party. Although Law and Justice continues to enjoy a clear opinion poll lead, the government is feeling the strain of having been in office for four-and-a-half years. A slowdown in the economy has put pressure on the state budget making it difficult for Law and Justice to offer any substantial new social spending and welfare pledges, the key to mobilising its supporters in previous elections. In January inflation hit 4.4%, the highest rate for eight years, which, apart from impacting upon living standards more generally, will have eaten into the income boost which Poles received from the government’s welfare payments and fiscal transfers; and recently approved new taxes will also start to hit Polish consumers.

While Mr Duda’s personal popularity remains higher than that of the ruling party, a key group of voters who are positively inclined towards him but do not necessarily support Law and Justice may use the election to articulate that discontent. So he needs to find a way of undermining this over-arching plebiscitary logic. In 2015, Mr Duda ran as an insurgent opposition candidate of change but, as an incumbent defending a record, it will be difficult for him to replicate the energy and dynamism of that campaign. Nonetheless, if he is to avoid the trap that Mr Komorowski fell into five years ago Mr Duda will have to once-again offer a fresh reform agenda rather than simply standing as the candidate of the governing status quo.

Moreover, Mr Duda’s re-election campaign got off to a shaky start when the opposition called upon him to veto a government-sponsored law providing a 2 billion złoties subsidy to compensate Polish state broadcasters for shortfalls in licence fee payments, and instead spend the money on improving cancer treatment. Civic Platform pounced on an apparently obscene gesture by Law and Justice deputy Joanna Lichocka (for which she later apologised) during the parliamentary debate on the draft law, turning it into viral social media meme which they said symbolised the ruling party’s arrogance and contempt for cancer patients. They accused Law and Justice of depriving the health service of funds to subside a government propaganda tool (the ruling party argues that previous administrations also used Polish state TV in this way and that its current political stance simply brings pluralism and balance to a media landscape otherwise dominated by the party’s opponents). In the event, Mr Duda approved the law but not before forcing the resignation of Polish TVs controversial president Jacek Kurski, and then announced a separate, substantial increase in health service funding.

Underlying factors still working for Mr Duda?

Polish presidential elections often see very rapid shifts in public support in a short space of time and Mr Duda’s room for manoeuvre is extremely tight. The biggest threat to him could be the de-mobilisation of his disproportionately small-town and rural electorate which is generally much less interested in politics, while the government’s opponents will be highly motivated to turnout, especially in the second round. Nonetheless, there are still a number of important underlying factors working in Mr Duda’s favour, notably his credibility in helping to deliver Law and Justice’s very popular social spending and welfare policies while the economy remains fairly buoyant. Mr Duda has also developed his own distinctive presidential style based on highly personal contacts with the electorate. A key difference with his predecessor is that Mr Duda faced a sustained attack throughout his presidency from the still-influential opposition-supporting private media, so his base of support should be more solid. For sure, Civic Platform has certainly become more tactically astute and effective at political marketing on issues such as health service funding, and a below-expectations first round result for Mr Duda could change the campaign dynamics. But Mrs Kidawa-Błońska is still trying to mobilise voters primarily on the basis of opposition to the government and has not articulated a convincing alternative vision of the presidency that could decisively rally voters to her cause in a tight second round run-off.

What are the prospects for the Polish Peasant Party?

The unexpected success of Poland’s agrarian-centrist party in last autumn’s parliamentary election suggests that there could be a niche for a moderate conservative-centrist grouping among voters uncomfortable with the country’s right-wing ruling party and liberal-left opposition. But, critics argue, in spite of its changing electorate and apparently more open political style, the agrarian party remains a deeply pragmatic, office-seeking grouping rooted in provincial transactional politics.

Challenged in its heartlands

The agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL) was formed in 1990 as the organisational successor to the former communist satellite United Peasant Party (ZSL), although it attempted to legitimise itself by claiming to have roots in the pre-communist agrarian movement which dates back to the Nineteenth Century. Peasant parties were prominent in inter-war Polish politics and the movement provided the main political opposition to the communist takeover in the late 1940s. In the 1990s, it was estimated that 25% of Poles were employed in the farming sector, mostly in peasant smallholdings that survived as an independent economic sphere throughout the communist period. This provided the Peasant Party with a substantial segment of the electorate that it could appeal to on the basis of a clear socio-economic interest and collective identity. Consequently, the party was junior coalition partner in the governments led by the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) between 1993-97 (with its leader Waldemar Pawlak prime minister from 1993-95) and 2001-3. Its support peaked in the 1993 election when the party secured 15.4% of the vote and 132 seats in the 460-member Sejm, Poland’s more powerful lower parliamentary chamber.

The party returned to office in 2007 when it became the junior governing partner of the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO – currently Poland’s main opposition party) a coalition that lasted two terms until 2015 when it was ousted by the current ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party. Over the years, Law and Justice severely eroded the Peasant Party’s traditional core rural-agricultural electoral base and the agrarians had a near-death experience in the 2015 parliamentary election when they only just crossed the 5% representation threshold for individual parties securing 5.1% of the vote and 16 seats, the party’s worst result in any post-1989 poll.

During the 2015-19 parliament, the Peasant Party found it difficult to carve out a distinctive niche for itself as the political scene polarised sharply around bitter disputes between Law and Justice and the liberal-centrist and left-wing opposition. The government’s critics accused it of undermining the fundamentals of democracy and the rule of law, while Law and Justice supporters argued that the opposition represented the interests of well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elites. At the same time, the Peasant Party continued to face an existential challenge in its rural heartlands from Law and Justice. The ruling party strengthened its position in the countryside by delivering on its generous social and welfare pledges, notably the flagship ‘500 plus’ child subsidy programme which provided a significant boost to low income families living beyond the large urban centres who felt frustrated that they had not shared sufficiently in the country’s economic growth.

For sure, in the autumn 2018 regional elections the Peasant Party scored 12.1% of the vote, significantly higher than its national opinion poll ratings. But the party has always performed better in local elections – partly due to its strong grassroots organisational base of around 100,000 members, but also because there is generally a higher turnout in rural areas in these polls – and this was actually its worst performance in regional elections since 2002. Moreover, although the party remained in power (in coalition with Civic Platform) in eight out of the 16 regional authorities it lost control of some of its most important strongholds, notably the Lubelskie and Swiętokrzyskie provinces in South-Eastern Poland. This considerable loss of influence was important because the agrarians are primarily an office-seeking grouping that, critics argue, has developed powerful networks of patronage and interest clusters at the local level. Regional authorities play a key role in disbursing EU funds and are thus a major source of party patronage. The party then proceeded to alienate a large segment of its socially conservative core rural and small-town electoral base when it contested last May’s European Parliament (EP) election as part of a broad anti-Law and Justice ‘European Coalition’ (KE) dominated by socially liberal and culturally left-wing parties.

Wooing the moderate conservative centre

As a consequence, the Peasant Party decided to take a risk by contesting last October’s parliamentary election independently and, in one of the biggest surprises, comfortably crossed the representation threshold securing an impressive 8.6% of the vote and 30 seats. This was partly due to the fact that, in spite of its relatively modest financial resources, the party’s talented leader Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz ran a very energetic and dynamic election campaign. He was, for example, the only party leader to participate in the live televised debates where he performed very effectively. Following its 2015 election defeat, the party realised that, rather than simply hoping that something would turn up, it had to be more pro-active and decided to make a radical break with its old guard electing Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz – one of a new generation of young, articulate party activists – as its new leader. Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz tried to present himself as a conciliatory and consensual political figure, and his party as a constructive opposition capable of acting as a moderating influence on the bitterly divided Polish political scene. An October 2019 survey conducted by the CBOS polling agency found him to be the most trusted opposition politician with 34% approval and 21% disapproval ratings.

Moreover, following the EP election fiasco Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz realised that the party had to have a more distinctive appeal if it was to survive and recover its support. He therefore developed a new strategy based on the Peasant Party heading up a broader, centre-right ‘Polish Coalition’ (KP) electoral bloc (although, in order to avoid the higher 8% threshold for formal electoral coalitions, its candidates actually stood on the party’s electoral lists). The aim here was to reach out to new electoral constituencies such as Civic Platform conservatives who felt increasingly uncomfortable supporting a party that was pivoting towards the cultural left. The parliamentary election exit poll conducted by the Ipsos agency found that 9% of 2015 Civic Platform voters had switched to the Peasant Party and that these switchers comprised more than one-fifth of the latter’s total 2019 electorate.

The party also persuaded right-wing anti-establishment rock star Paweł Kukiz – who achieved a sensational result in the 2015 presidential election winning one-fifth of the vote and, on the back of this, his ‘Kukiz’15’ grouping was elected as the third largest in the previous parliament – to join the Polish Coalition’s ranks. Although teaming up with the quintessentially pro-establishment Peasant Party severely undermined Mr Kukiz’s credibility and core appeal as an ‘anti-system’ campaigner, the agrarian grouping won over 22.8% of the rock star-turned-politician’s declining grouping’s 2015 voters, bringing in a small but valuable swathe of new supporters. This probably contributed to the Peasant Party’s increase in support among young voters from 3.8% in 2015 to 10.3%. For sure, Mr Kukiz’s six deputies remain an unpredictable element within the Peasant Party’s parliamentary caucus and Law and Justice may try and poach some of them as it did successfully during the 2015-19 parliament. At the moment, however, they are virtually invisible in terms of their public profile and appear to have become almost completely absorbed by the agrarian grouping.

Although the Peasant Party continued to lose support among farmers – its vote share fell from 18.6% in 2015 to 17.1%, while Law and Justice’s increased from 53.3% to 67.4% – it held its own in rural areas more generally increasing its vote share there from 9.4% to 12.3%. At the same time, the Peasant Party compensated for losses in its traditional rural-agrarian heartlands by broadening its demographic base through crafting a centrist appeal directed at the moderate conservative intelligentsia and middle classes in both rural and urban areas. Consequently, it increased its vote share in larger towns (with populations between 200-500,000) and cities (with more than half-a-million inhabitants) from 1.4% and 1.5% to 6% and 5.5% respectively and, for the first time, won parliamentary seats in some of these urban agglomerations. In particular, the party increased its vote share among entrepreneurs – many of whom were concerned about Law and Justice’s costly social spending and welfare programmes, especially its plans to almost double the minimum wage by the end of 2023 – from 3.8% to 9.9%. In did so by stressing the importance of protecting businesses against excessive bureaucracy and high taxation; one of the party’s flagship policies was a proposal to make national insurance contributions voluntary for entrepreneurs.

A serious presidential challenger?

Now Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz wants to build upon the party’s parliamentary election success, and continue his political project of broadening its appeal, in May’s crucial presidential poll, Poland’s next major electoral test. Presidential elections have traditionally been those in which the Peasant Party’s core supporters have taken the least interest; in 2015 its candidate performed disastrously finishing sixth with only 1.6% of the vote. But the party’s supporters hope that it can cash in on Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz’s personal popularity (which has increased since the parliamentary election) and that he can secure a respectable result this time around.

For sure, Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz currently appears to have little chance of winning: the ‘Ewybory’ website that aggregates voting intention surveys places him fifth averaging 7% support. However, too many premature political obituaries have been written for the Peasant Party in recent years and it would be a mistake to under-estimate its leader in this poll. Ironically, the fact that the party has always scored its worst results in presidential elections means that Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz starts with very low expectations, so if he runs an effective campaign and manages to achieve a percentage score in double figures it could still portray this result as a major success. Indeed, some commentators argue that, because of his ability to pick up more support among moderate conservative-centrist voters than the liberal or left-wing opposition candidates, Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz would actually have the best chance of defeating the Law and Justice-backed incumbent and favourite Andrzej Duda in a second round run-off, which is required if no candidate secures more than 50% of the votes in the first round.

Still rooted in transactional politics?

Previous Peasant Party leaders have also talked about rebranding the party as a broader centrist formation in the way that some West European agrarian parties evolved from class-based organisations into more ‘catch-all’ groupings (the party has, for some time, used ‘People’s Party’ as the English translation of its name). Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz is also aware that, in addition to the specific challenge that the party faces from Law and Justice for its traditional electorate, longer term demographic trends show that Poles are moving away from rural areas and the proportion working in agriculture is declining as modern farms operate increasingly as agro-businesses rather than traditional peasant smallholdings. But, until recently, plans to modernise the grouping never went much beyond an aspiration and it always remained, at root, an interest-based rural-agricultural ‘class’ party.

The 2019 parliamentary election suggests, however, that there is a moderate socially conservative and traditionalist electorate in Poland that is uncomfortable with both Law and Justice’s redistributionist socio-economic policies and radical state reconstruction programme, and Civic Platform’s increasing drift towards the moral-cultural left. The election could, therefore, be a key landmark in Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz’s long-term political project of transforming the Peasant Party from an agrarian interest group into a modern conservative-centrist party. Nonetheless, the party’s critics argue that, in spite of its changing electorate and apparently more open political style, it remains at its core a deeply pragmatic, office-seeking grouping strongly rooted in a provincial transactional politics.

 

How will the latest judicial reform controversy affect Polish politics?

New disciplinary procedures for Polish judges have moved the right-wing government’s controversial judicial reform programme to the top of the political agenda in the run-up to May’s crucial presidential election. Although the issue could help the ruling party-backed incumbent to mobilise and consolidate the core right-wing vote, the potential for political instability and legal chaos means it could also damage his re-election prospects.

Reforming a ‘special caste’ or undermining judicial independence?

A radical but fiercely contested overhaul of the judicial system has been one of the main sources of political controversy in Poland since it was introduced two-and-a-half years ago by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the country’s ruling grouping since autumn 2015. One of the most important and contentious elements of the reforms was the establishment of a new supreme court chamber to conduct disciplinary actions against judges. The new chamber was appointed by an overhauled national judicial council (KRS), the body that nominates judges and decides how the courts are run, in which the majority of members were selected mainly by parliament, rather than the legal profession as had previously been the case.

The government’s supporters argued that the reforms were sorely needed because Polish courts were too slow, deeply inefficient and tolerated frequent irregularities and corrupt practices. Overhauling the courts is one of the most important elements of Law and Justice’s programme because the party believes that, following the country’s flawed transition to democracy in 1989, the judiciary, like many key Polish institutions, was expropriated by an extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite, which then co-opted a new legal establishment that perpetuated its legacy. The judicial elite, they said, viewed itself as a superior ‘special caste’ out of touch with ordinary citizens, and operated as a ‘state within a state’ incapable of reforming itself. In these circumstances, they argued, making judges and their supervisory organs more accountable to elected bodies was both justifiable and in line with practices in other established democracies.

The liberal-centrist and left-wing opposition, and Poland’s legal establishment, on the other hand, strongly criticised the reforms as an attack on the rule of law and infringement of the key democratic principle of constitutional separation of powers. Warning of a drift towards authoritarian rule, the government’s opponents argued that, by putting judicial appointments under political control, these reforms allowed Law and Justice to pack the courts with its own, hand-picked nominees, and thereby undermined their independence. Following mass protests in summer 2017, Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda vetoed some of the reforms, but his revised version finally approved by parliament was actually very close to the government’s original proposals; the main change being a guarantee that parliamentary nominees to the national judicial council would be elected by a qualified three-fifths supermajority, forcing the ruling party to negotiate appointments with opposition deputies.

Clashing with the EU political establishment

The reforms also triggered a series of clashes between Poland and the EU political establishment. During the last four years the government has been in an ongoing dispute with the European Commission over so-called ‘rule of law’ issues. Initially, this was over the membership and functioning of the country’s constitutional tribunal, but the stand-off escalated in 2017 to include Law and Justice’s judicial reforms. The Commission took the unprecedented step of initiating an action against Poland under Article 7 of the European treaties, which can be invoked against any EU member state when it is felt there is a ‘systemic threat’ to democracy and the rule of law, threatening Warsaw with sanctions including the suspension of its European Council voting rights. However, the Commission was unable to secure the qualified majority required among EU member states to move beyond the initial stage of the procedure.

Consequently, at the same time the Commission initiated infringement procedures against Poland in the EU Court of Justice, while Polish judges also submitted a number of ‘prejudicial questions’ regarding various aspects of the reforms. Last November, the Court made a ruling in one such case brought by Polish supreme court judges who questioned the independence of the new disciplinary chamber to handle appeals against early retirement on the grounds that it was appointed by the new national judicial council. Although the Court stopped short of declaring the new chamber illegal, it referred the case back to the Polish supreme court to determine whether the former was sufficiently independent from political influence. In doing so, it set out criteria to determine whether judicial appointments met EU standards, paying particular attention to how a body was appointed.

Law and Justice welcomed the fact that the EU Court left it up to Polish judicial bodies to decide on the independence of the disciplinary chamber. However, the government’s opponents felt the Court provided them with a tool for challenging and dismantling the reforms. Some Polish judges interpreted the ruling as a judgement that the new national judicial council was not a legitimate body, and questioned the verdicts of judges appointed by it. Moreover, last December the supreme court itself ruled that, in its current composition, the council was neither impartial nor politically independent so the judges appointed by it and their verdicts, including the new disciplinary chamber, were not legal according to EU law.

Intimidating judges or preventing legal chaos?

In response, Law and Justice introduced sweeping new disciplinary procedures – with penalties including fines, movement to another court, and removal from office – against judges who: prevented or significantly impeded the functioning of the justice system; refused to recognise the legitimacy of other judges; or participated in public activities that undermined the functioning of the state’s governing organs, or were incompatible with the principles of judicial independence and impartiality. The government’s opponents argued that the new measures, which they dubbed a ‘gagging law’ (ustawa kagańcowa), further undermined judicial independence by attempting to intimidate critical judges so that they ruled in line with the ruling party’s expectations. They also warned that the law could lead to Poland being excluded from the EU, so-called ‘Polexit’, as its provisions violated the terms of the European treaties by undermining the primacy of Union law. For its part, the Commission called upon the Polish authorities to suspend passage of the law until it could be scrutinised by the Venice Commission, an advisory body on constitutional matters to the Council of Europe human rights watchdog. Earlier this month, the opposition-controlled Senate, Poland’s less powerful second chamber, invited the Venice Commission to review the legislation.

However, Law and Justice dismissed the Venice Commission’s negative evaluation arguing that the watchdog was not impartial and too closely aligned with the Polish legal establishment. Accusing the legal establishment and opposition of wanting Poland to be a ‘judge-ocracy’ (sędziokracja), the government’s supporters said that the new regulations were necessary for society to feel that the judiciary was impartial and apolitical and an essential response to those judges who, by questioning their colleagues’ legitimacy, threatened to engulf the Polish legal system in chaos. To date, nearly 500 judges have been nominated by the new national judicial council and all their rulings could be challenged. Law and Justice argued that the new regulations were based on similar provisions in other countries, notably France and Germany; although the government’s critics said that the party was distorting how these laws worked in practice.

Alienating moderate voters or consolidating the base?

In some ways, the revival of the judicial reform controversy is very problematic for Law and Justice with a crucially important presidential election due in May. The party lacks the three-fifths parliamentary majority required to over-turn a presidential veto, so Mr Duda’s defeat would seriously hamper its ability to govern effectively. Given his high popularity ratings, Mr Duda remains the clear favourite, but last October’s parliamentary election showed how polarised and evenly balanced support between the government and opposition camps is, and the presidential poll will be much closer if it turns into another plebiscite on the Law and Justice government. Moreover, in order to win a successful candidate has to craft a unifying and consensual appeal that can secure over more than 50% of the votes, so Law and Justice should be avoiding divisive and polarising issues that could alienate more moderate centrist voters. A sense that the ruling party is associated with political instability and social conflict could, therefore, rebound on Mr Duda. There are also concerns that, by re-igniting Law and Justice’s conflict with the EU political establishment, the issue could allow the opposition to revive its ‘Polexit’ narrative which, given Poles’ overwhelming support for membership of the Union, is a toxic slogan for any mainstream Polish politician to be associated with.

Nonetheless, Law and Justice seems determined to push through the new disciplinary regulations because it believes the risk of legal chaos if judges start questioning the status of their colleagues’ rulings is even greater. For his part, Mr Duda has taken a clear stance in support of the government on this issue. Law and Justice was also hoping that the European Commission under its new President Ursula von der Leyen would be more accommodating towards Poland and put ‘rule of law’ issues on the back-burner in order to improve strategic co-operation with Warsaw, particularly as the party played a key role in her appointment. However, in a major setback, earlier this month the Commission decided to ask the EU Court to impose emergency interim measures suspending the functioning of the disciplinary chamber.

In fact, for the moment at least, Law and Justice appears to have sustained only minimal political damage, as the issue has not yet developed the momentum that it had a couple of years ago. Although there have been anti-government protests, the scale of these is not comparable to the summer 2017 groundswell which helped persuade Mr Duda to veto and amend some of the original proposals. Even if Poles have misgiving about whether the government’s specific reforms will significantly improve the functioning of the judicial system, Law and Justice has been effective at convincing many of them that, for all its faults, it is at least trying to tackle a problem which previous administrations appeared content to ignore.

Moreover, opinion polls suggest that there is actually considerable uncertainty about the government’s latest proposals. For example, a December survey carried out for the ‘Rzeczpospolita’ newspaper by the IBRiS agency found that, while Poles opposed a ban on judges questioning the appointment or legality of their colleagues by 40% to 36%, 27% responded that they did not know. A Kantar survey for ‘TVN/TVN24’ also found that, by a 53% to 40% margin, Poles disagreed that Law and Justice’s policies could lead to ‘Polexit’. Indeed, some commentators argue that Law and Justice is using judicial reform as a so-called ‘wedge issue’ to boost turnout among its core electorate in the presidential election, as well as trying to secure the support of the one million Poles who voted for the radical right Eurosceptic ‘Confederation’ (Konfederacja) grouping in last October’s poll.

Who gets the blame?

For the moment, therefore, the latest judicial reform controversy appears to be having relatively few damaging effects on Law and Justice and may even help to mobilise and consolidate the core right-wing vote. However, if it contributes to a sense of endless political instability and societal conflict this could harm Mr Duda’s re-election prospects. The key risk here is that the new disciplinary regulations actually radicalise rather than pacify the government’s opponents in the judiciary, and lead to precisely the mass rejection of rulings by ‘new’ judges that the legislation was designed to avoid, particularly if the EU Court throws the government’s opponents a lifeline by calling for the suspension of the disciplinary chamber. The issue then becomes how quickly such legal chaos starts to affect ordinary citizens on a large scale, and who gets the blame for this: the government and Mr Duda or the opposition and legal establishment?

What are the prospects for Poland’s radical right Confederation?

Poland’s October election saw the unexpected success of a strongly pro-free market and nationalist radical right challenger to the ruling party. However, the new grouping’s youthful, anti-establishment core electorate is notoriously fickle, and its ideological eclecticism – and the presence of highly controversial personalities among its leaders – makes it an unstable political construct.

Moderating and professionalising its appeal

Formally constituted at the beginning of 2019, the radical right-wing ‘Confederation’ (Konfederacja) grouping is a political conglomerate comprising an eclectic mix of economic libertarians clustered around the veteran political eccentric Janusz Korwin-Mikke and radical nationalists from the National Movement (RN) party. The Confederation’s first electoral outing was in the May European Parliament (EP) election when one of its leaders summed up the grouping’s policy platform as: ‘we don’t want Jews, homosexuals, abortion, taxes and the EU’. But the Confederation’s signature issue was its criticism of the alleged failure of the government, led since 2015 by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, to stand up to the USA and Israel over the question of Jewish wartime reparations as emblematic of its inability to defend Poland’s international interests effectively (a charge the ruling party denies vehemently).

The Confederation narrowly failed to cross the 5% parliamentary representation threshold for parties, winning 4.6% of the votes, and most commentators expected it to once-again fail in the October parliamentary election. Given the higher turnout, radical political groupings tend to perform less well in parliamentary elections than in ‘second order’ EP polls. However, although it had hovered just below the threshold in opinion polls, in one of the biggest surprises of parliamentary election the Confederation secured 6.8% of the votes and won 11 seats in the Sejm, Poland’s more powerful lower legislative chamber

Some commentators argued that the Confederation was greatly helped by the decision of the pro-Law and Justice public TV channels to firstly ignore and then ferociously attack the grouping in their pre-election coverage. This, they said, (ironically) both provided the Confederation with high profile coverage during the final phase of the campaign while simultaneously evoking sympathy for it as the underdog. However, the Confederation also adopted a completely different strategy in the parliamentary campaign, playing down the most controversial elements of its programme. In an attempt to appeal to disillusioned middle class voters, the grouping focused much more on stressing its free market credentials, calling for tax cuts and shrinking the size of the welfare state. In doing so, the Confederation sought to differentiate itself from all the other main political groupings (including nominally liberal ones) as the only one that did not support large-scale fiscal transfers and increases in social welfare, arguing that excessive taxation and state regulation stifled opportunities for the most dynamic sections of Polish society.

All of this appealed to voters who did not feel that were they were significant beneficiaries of Law and Justice’s social programmes and were wary of the taxation required to pay for them, as well as groups such as smaller business owners concerned about that the ruling party’s plans for large increases in the minimum wage. The Confederation’s success, therefore, suggested that there was a segment of the right-wing electorate who felt that Law and Justice’s large state support and social welfare programmes did not address their concerns.

At the same time, as well as avoiding confrontational rhetoric and radical themes, the Confederation professionalised its image. It profiled relatively youthful leaders able to present its radical programme in a measured and reasonable way – such as the articulate nationalist politician Krzysztof Bosak, who represented the grouping effectively in pre-election televised debates – keeping more controversial figures such as Mr Korwin-Mikke in the background.

A party for provincial young men?

In terms of the Confederation’s social base of support: around 20% of younger voters aged under-30 supported the grouping; two-thirds of its voters were male; and more than three-fifths lived in smaller towns and rural areas. These kind of younger, provincial voters feel that they have limited chances for professional and career advancement, are frustrated with the apparent ‘glass ceiling’ of vested interests and corrupt networks that they often feel stifles opportunities for them, and do not see state support as the solution to their problems. They first made their presence felt in the 2014 EP election when they supported Mr Korwin-Mikke’s then-party the Congress of the New Right (KNP) which won 7.2% of the votes (on a much lower turnout than 2019). Many of them were likely to have voted for rock star Paweł Kukiz who caused a political sensation when, standing as a right-wing ‘anti-system’ candidate, he won one-fifth of the vote in the 2015 presidential election. Later that year, his ‘Kukiz’15’ grouping emerged as the third largest in the parliamentary election securing 9% of the votes; and 24% of its 2015 supporters voted for the Confederation in 2019. The Internet rather than the traditional broadcast and print media is often these younger voters’ main source of political information, which also helped to give the Confederation a very strong on-line presence.

However, above-average levels of support among younger provincial men notwithstanding, the Confederation’s electoral base was actually fairly socially heterogeneous and included many well-educated and relatively better-off Poles. Indeed, the grouping enjoyed above-average support among entrepreneurs and small- and medium-sized business owners, many of whom welcomed the Confederation’s free market economic policies as a way of unblocking what they saw as a deadweight of state bureaucracy, excessive regulation and red tape, high taxes, vested interests and cronyism. In this sense, the Confederation’s entry into parliament was the culmination of a series of trends which have been developing in Polish society for several years.

Moreover, even though, unlike Law and Justice, the Confederation does not enjoy especially close ties with the hierarchy of Poland’s influential Catholic Church, it is a strongly socially conservative grouping. Indeed, the Confederation tended to present moral-cultural issues in even clearer and more binary terms than Law and Justice which, while also strongly socially conservative by broader European standards, also tried to portray a modernising and technocratic image and needed to secure the support of more socially liberal voters attracted by the party’s socio-economic policies. Consequently, the Confederation also won over a segment of socially conservative voters dissatisfied with Law and Justice’s perceived pivot to the technocratic centre and who felt that the ruling party had not delivered sufficiently on moral-cultural issues. For example, although Law and Justice courted ‘religious right’ voters, it had failed to pass legislation promoted by Catholic civic organisations to further tighten Poland’s (already restrictive) abortion law. Similarly, while the ruling party opposed the EU’s plan for member states to admit compulsory quotas of mainly Muslim migrants from North Africa and the Middle East as representing enforced multi-culturalism and a potential threat to Polish national security, the Law and Justice government also accepted hundreds-of-thousands of economic migrants, mainly from Ukraine but also some from Muslim-majority countries.

Ideological eclecticism and controversial leaders

Although the Confederation’s influence will be limited by the fact that it only has 11 deputies (four short of the number required to form a parliamentary caucus and, therefore, table draft legislation) its presence in the new legislature means that Law and Justice faces a challenger on its radical right flank that it will spare no opportunity to criticise the ruling party from free market, nationalist and socially conservative perspectives. In doing so it will put pressure on, and try and outbid, Law and Justice on various issues that are important to sections of the ruling party’s electorate but that it has preferred to avoid up until now, such as abortion, and thereby put the government’s efforts to strike a balance between its traditionalist and technocratic wings under increasing strain. For its part, Law and Justice faces a strategic dilemma as to whether to try and compete with the Confederation on the radical right or use the latter’s presence in parliament to further triangulate and present itself as a more moderate, centrist political formation.

However, the Confederation faces an uncertain future and its success (indeed, its very survival) may prove very brittle and short-lived. Although it remains a political conglomerate, unlike Kukiz’15 the Confederation formally registered as a political party which allows it to secure 27 million złoties of ongoing state funding in the course of the forthcoming parliament. The fact that it is well-resourced will provide the grouping with a source of short-term unity and cohesion. Moreover, its ideological eclecticism actually gave the Confederation a certain synergy effect during the election campaign.

In the longer-term, however, these internal divisions, together with the presence of strong personalities in its ranks, mean that the Confederation could find it very difficult to hold together as a single political entity in the new parliament. At the same time, although there is clearly a social base for the Confederation’s brand of politics, many of its leaders, such as Mr Korwin-Mikke and the highly controversial maverick Grzegorz Braun, are political eccentrics and if these individuals set the tone for the grouping it will seriously limit its chances of broadening out its support beyond the radical right hard core. Indeed, some commentators argued that, to some extent, the fact that the Confederation was ignored by both liberal-left and conservative mainstream media outlets during most of the election campaign actually boosted its prospects by keeping these individuals out of sight!

Law and Justice may also try and persuade some Confederation deputies to defect, as it did successfully with Kukiz’15 in the previous parliament. But this may not be so easy given that the Confederation’s parliamentarians have a stronger ideological grounding than Mr Kukiz’s supporters did, although the more ambitious ones may become frustrated if the grouping fails to make any impact as the legislative term progresses.

The Confederation’s immediate challenge is to select a candidate for next May’s presidential election. This could end its programmatic ‘constructive ambiguity’ by forcing it to choose someone identified more strongly with either its nationalist or free market wings. The Confederation’s presidential candidate – who will be chosen at a US-style convention in January by regional delegates elected to support particular candidates by registered supporters – could also emerge as the grouping’s de facto leader. Mr Bosak currently appears to be emerging as the front-runner.

Another flash-in-the-pan?

Although a predominantly young electorate should bode well for the Confederation’s future, such anti-establishment protest voters are notoriously impulsive and fickle as the earlier one-term success of groupings such as Kukiz’15 shows and even if the grouping is able to retain this support for a period it could evaporate very quickly. The Kukiz’15 example also illustrates how difficult it is for ‘anti-system’ parties to function effectively, and communicate a contestatory, ideologically distinctive message in a parliamentary setting governed by formal rules and informal conventions, particularly if the political scene continues to be dominated by a bi-polar pro- versus anti-Law and Justice divide. The Confederation’s not-altogether-credible claim that there is really no difference between Law and Justice and other liberal, centrist and left-wing parties representing the post-communist status quo will limit its potential appeal beyond a certain electoral niche, as will its contempt for the ruling party’s social transfers which are so important to many less well-off right-wing conservative voters.

Since the collapse of communism in 1989, Poland has seen a series of ‘anti-system’ parties emerge, some winning as much as 10% of the vote, only to then fizzle out and disappear. The Confederation will undoubtedly benefit in the short-term from the political momentum derived from its electoral success and a charismatic and dynamic candidate such as Mr Bosak could perform well in the presidential election. But there is every chance that it could prove to be yet another flash-in-the-pan and join the long list of fleetingly successful but relatively short-lived anti-establishment protest parties that have been a recurring feature of the post-communist Polish political scene.