How will the Ukrainian conflict affect the Polish presidential election?

Poland’s fast-moving presidential election campaign has lacked a dominant theme and the ongoing crisis in Ukraine has not played an especially prominent role. However, the Ukrainian conflict remains an important background issue that could move up the political agenda if the situation in Poland’s Eastern neighbour worsens over the next few weeks.

Security issues favour the incumbent

Elections are rarely determined by foreign policy. The Polish presidential poll, the first round of which is scheduled for May 10th (with a second round run-off two weeks later if no candidate secures more than 50% of the votes), has been fast-paced but lacked a dominant theme. The main lines of division between the candidates have changed rapidly over the last few weeks but largely revolved around domestic issues such as the government’s proposal to introduce a liberal in-vitro fertilisation law and controversy over party links with the SKOK savings and loans institutions which have been criticised by financial regulators, together with socio-economic questions such as Polish adoption of the euro. However, in a situation where the most serious geo-political crisis since the break-up of the Soviet Union is taking place on Poland’s Eastern border, foreign policy and security issues could be more salient in this election than in previous polls. Moreover, given that the President is formally commander-in-chief of the armed forces and has a potentially major influence on Polish foreign policy, the fact that many Poles feel threatened and insecure as a result of the war in Ukraine is likely to favour whichever candidate comes across as most credible on these issues.

The incumbent Bronisław Komorowski, who is backed by the ruling centrist Civic Platform (PO) party, enjoys personal and job approval ratings of over 70%. Although he made a rather slow start to the campaign, and it now looks more likely that there will be a second round run-off, Mr Komorowski remains odds-on favourite to win with around 40-50% support. The Ukrainian issue is likely to favour Mr Komorowski, who has tried to make national security a central plank of his election campaign strategy. Voters naturally tend to rally around existing leaders during periods of international tension and, as incumbent, he has many more instruments at his disposal that allow him to appear credible on this issue. Mr Komorowski is a former defence minister who has represented Poland at NATO summits during his presidency and his supporters argue that a period of escalating crisis in Ukraine is not a time to risk experiments with political novices. For example, speaking at the convention launching Mr Komorowski’s re-election campaign, prime minister and Civic Platform leader Ewa Kopacz said (in an allusion to Hillary Clinton’s famous election advert directed against Barack Obama during the 2008 US Democratic party nomination race) that the prospect of an opposition politician rather than the incumbent President having to react to a serious international crisis in the middle of the night sent ‘shivers down my back’.

Campaigning on the slogan ‘Agreement and Security’, Mr Komorowski has also tied the uncertain international situation in with the other main pillar of his campaign – the claim that, unlike his opponents, he symbolises political consensus and stability – arguing that the country had to avoid sharp, internal conflicts (dubbed the ‘Polish-Polish war’) at a time when a military conflict was raging on its border. Moreover, echoing a successful Civic Platform campaign theme from the May 2014 European Parliament (EP) election, where it used the Ukrainian issue to come from behind and narrowly win, Mr Komorowski has also tried to link national security with European integration. Arguing that Poland’s international position depends upon its membership of Western international structures, he claimed that the country needs consistently pro-European politicians at the helm and that any party or presidential candidate who questions Poland’s integration into the EU threatens to undermine the foundations of national security. Mr Komorowski pledged to continue the current government’s strategy of locating Poland within the so-called ‘European mainstream’ and working closely with the main EU powers, especially Germany, which, he claims, has been effective in promoting Poland’s interests at the international level.

Poland’s ‘own stream’ not the ‘mainstream’

Mr Komorowski’s main challenger is Andrzej Duda, a 42-year-old lawyer and MEP who is the candidate of the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main opposition grouping. Mr Duda has run an energetic campaign which has, at times, caught Mr Komorowski off-guard and managed to increase his support steadily to around 20-30%. Knowing that it is difficult for a presidential challenger to score points off an incumbent on foreign policy issues, Mr Duda was initially careful about highlighting the Ukrainian issue and international affairs more generally, not helped by the fact that he appeared to make contradictory statements about whether or not Poland should provide military assistance to Ukraine.

However, Mr Duda has now started to pay more attention to the Ukrainian issue and Eastern policy. Formally there does not appear to be much difference between the two main candidates, with both supporting the idea of Poland being at the forefront of efforts to ensure that the international community adopts a robust response to Russian intervention, and specifically that EU sanctions are maintained and extended. The main difference between the two, according to Mr Duda, is the extent to which the Mr Komorowski and the Civic Platform-led government are, notwithstanding occasional flushes of anti-Moscow rhetoric, constrained by their unwillingness to move too far beyond the EU consensus. The result of this has, he claims, been a failure to conduct a sufficiently active Eastern policy, exemplified by the fact that the Polish government is not represented in international negotiations that are currently determining Ukraine’s future.

Mr Duda contrasts what he claims has been Law and Justice’s accurate diagnosis of Russian motives and more assertive Eastern policy with Mr Komorowski and the government’s earlier conciliatory approach towards Russian President Vladimir Putin, which events in Ukraine have shown to be naïve and short-sighted. Rather than trying to locate itself within the ‘European mainstream’ Poland needs to conduct a more independent foreign policy and form its ‘own stream’ that can counter-balance the major EU powers which take an insufficiently robust approach towards Moscow. More broadly, Mr Duda has identified himself with the so-called ‘Jagiellonian policy’ promoted by the late Law and Justice-backed President Lech Kaczyński, Mr Komorowski’s predecessor in whose chancellery he worked as a legal advisor, which envisaged Poland playing the role of regional leader and building a broad military and political coalition of post-communist East-Central European states to counter Russian expansionism.

Carving out a ‘realist’ niche

Meanwhile, some of the minor presidential candidates have attempted to carve out a niche by distancing themselves from the two main contenders’ approach towards Ukraine. For example, Adam Jarubas, the 40-year-old deputy leader and presidential candidate of the agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL), Civic Platform’s junior coalition partner, has appeared to criticise – and, at times, openly contest – the Eastern policy being pursued by Mr Komorowski and the government of which his party is a member. The Peasant Party’s core electoral constituency are famers, many of whom have lost out as a result of counter-measures taken by Moscow in response to EU sanctions, particularly the embargo on Polish agricultural produce. Mr Jarubas criticised Polish politicians including (although not by name) Mrs Kopacz for the cool reception that they gave to Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban during his visit to Warsaw in February after he concluded an energy agreement with Russia; apologising to ‘brother Hungarians’ in their native language (which is extremely difficult for a foreigner to master)! He has distanced himself from Polish politicians who ostentatiously supported the Kiev ‘Euromaidan’ protests that led to the collapse of the previous pro-Moscow regime arguing that, while supporting Ukraine’s European aspirations, Poland should not become involved directly in the country’s domestic politics. All of this created tensions within the coalition while failing to provide Mr Jarubas with any noticeable electoral benefit; his support remains stuck at around 1-2%. He has since toned down his criticisms of the government, making it clear that he supports maintaining, and even strengthening, EU sanctions in spite of their unpopularity in the Polish countryside; and even training Ukrainian soldiers as long as this takes place on Polish territory.

35-year-old historian and TV personality Magdalena Ogórek – the candidate of the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), the smaller left-wing opposition grouping, whom most polls show to be in third place with around 5-6% – has also tried to position herself as supporting a change of approach towards Russia. Ms Ogórek has been very circumspect in her public statements and, as a consequence, derided by many commentators for her reluctance to answer questions in press conferences and give extended national media interviews. However, in one of her first public appearances as a candidate, she appeared to toss a bone to the Alliance’s core electoral constituency of older voters linked to the previous communist regime by promising a thaw in relations between Warsaw and Moscow. While condemning Russian aggression in Ukraine, she opposed supplying arms to Kiev and said that, unlike Mr Komorowski, she would not be afraid to take the initiative and ‘pick up the ‘phone and call him (Mr Putin)’ so that the Russian media would not portray Poland as their country’s ‘number one enemy’.

Perhaps the best example of a presidential candidate with a self-styled ‘realist’ approach towards Polish Eastern policy is the economically libertarian and socially conservative MEP Janusz Korwin-Mikke, a veteran eccentric of the Polish political scene whose radically Eurosceptic Congress of the New Right (KPN) party came a surprise fourth in last May’s EP election with 7.2% of the vote. Mr Korwin-Mikke already attracted controversy last year when he appeared to agree with Mr Putin that Poland had trained ‘Ukrainian terrorists’ who took part in the ‘Euromaidan’ demonstrations, and justified the Russian annexation of Crimea. During the current presidential campaign, Mr Korwin-Mikke has once again argued that Poland should take a neutral stance in the conflict. He said that that he sympathised with Mr Putin given that Russia was surrounded by NATO bases and appeared to agree with those Russian politicians who claimed that Poland’s leaders were ‘Washington’s poodles’. He also argued that, although it was in his country’s strategic interests for an independent Ukraine to exist as a buffer zone against Russia, it did not matter if this did not include the Donbas region. However, Mr Korwin-Mikke will struggle to repeat his EP election success: he was deposed as party leader and forced to set up his own grouping at the start of the year, and currently has around 3-4% support.

Ukraine could still play a decisive role

There are real differences of approach to the Ukrainian issue among the Polish presidential election candidates. Moreover, if security concerns linked to the situation on Poland’s Eastern border re-emerge as one of the most important campaign themes this could encourage voters to ‘play safe’, swinging the election in the incumbent’s favour. At the time of writing coverage of the Ukrainian issue has receded somewhat and it is questionable whether Mr Komorowski can establish it as a major axis of conflict in the way that Civic Platform did so successfully in last year’s EP election campaign. Nonetheless, Ukraine remains an important background issue and security concerns could quickly move to the top of the political agenda if the conflict escalates and once again starts to dominate the headlines, potentially playing an important, and even decisive, role in determining the election outcome.