Which issues will determine the Polish presidential election?

by Aleks Szczerbiak

While the right-wing presidential challenger’s early momentum appears to have stalled, the incumbent’s attempts to portray his opponent as a radical have not been completely successful and a second round of voting now looks likely. Although the current President remains clear favourite to win, a run-off could develop its own dynamic with unpredictable consequences.

Mr Duda catches Mr Komorowski off-guard

The Polish presidential election will be held on May 10th with a second round run-off two weeks later if no candidate secures more than 50% of the votes. The President retains some important constitutional powers such as: the right to initiate legislation, refer bills to the Constitutional Tribunal, nominate a number of key state officials, and, perhaps most significantly, a suspensive veto that requires a two-thirds parliamentary majority to over-turn. However, the President’s competencies are much less significant than those of, say, his French counterpart and real executive power lies with the prime minister. The presidential poll should, therefore, be seen above all as a precursor to the more important autumn parliamentary election which will determine the shape of the Polish political scene for several years to come.

The election campaign has been fast-paced but lacked a dominant theme and the main lines of division between the candidates have changed rapidly. Originally, the incumbent Bronisław Komorowski – who is backed by the ruling centrist Civic Platform (PO) party led by prime minister Ewa Kopacz, and has enjoyed extremely high personal and job approval ratings of over 70% – looked odds-on favourite to win, probably in the first round. However, his campaign got off to slow start, unlike his main challenger Andrzej Duda – candidate of the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main opposition grouping – whose energetic and dynamic launch caught Mr Komorowski off-guard. Promising an active presidency in contrast to Mr Komorowski’s alleged passivity and complacency, Mr Duda’s campaign has focused on socio-economic issues, including a pledge to repeal the Civic Platform-led government’s extremely unpopular pension reforms that raised the retirement age to 67. Moreover, the fact that Mr Duda’s poll ratings were, initially at least, well below those of his party actually proved advantageous: by simply increasing his name recognition he was able to boost support among the Law and Justice core electorate very rapidly thereby giving his campaign a sense of progress and momentum.

‘Rational Poland’ versus ‘radical Poland’

Once he eventually got into his stride, Mr Komorowski’s core campaign message, based on the slogan ‘Agreement and Security’, was the claim that, unlike his opponents, he was a non-party ‘civic’ candidate who represented political consensus and stability. These qualities were, he argued, essential as Poland had to avoid sharp internal conflicts at a time when the international situation in the region was so unstable. Although events in neighbouring Ukraine no longer dominate the news headlines and have not been a salient campaign issue, they provided an important subtext to Mr Komorowski’s ‘security’ message: that a period of ongoing international tensions was not a time to risk experiments with political novices.

The other main objective of Mr Komorowski’s campaign was to try and draw a contrast between what he termed ‘rational’ and ‘radical’ Poland. In part, this was simply an attempt to revive Civic Platform’s traditional anti-Law and Justice message: that the ruling party is a better guarantor of stability than the confrontational and turbulent style of politics that many voters (rightly or wrongly) associate with Law and Justice and its leader Jarosław Kaczyński. This theme has characterised all of the ruling party’s recent, successful election campaigns. However, it also involved a conscious effort to ‘toxify’ Mr Duda, whom Law and Justice tried to present as a moderate and reasonable centrist, by portraying him as a political extremist.

Mr Komorowski’s supporters tried to do this by highlighting popular socially liberal policies being promoted by the Civic Platform-led government which are opposed by Mr Duda and Law and Justice. These included: ratifying the Council of Europe’s convention on preventing violence against women, and passing a liberal law regulating in-vitro fertilisation. Mr Duda opposed both measures, agreeing with the stance taken by the Catholic Church – which remains an influential political actor in Poland, especially on the political right, and is against the artificial creation of human life. While strongly supporting policies to protect women, Mr Duda argued that the Council of Europe convention was not the right solution as it linked domestic violence to religion and the traditional role of the family while introducing alien concepts into the Polish legal system, such as so-called ‘gender ideology’ which allowed individuals to choose their own gender roles. Mr Komorowski’s supporters took advantage of this to suggest that Mr Duda was failing to stand up for the rights of abused women. They also drew attention to the fact that, in an earlier 2012 parliamentary debate, Mr Duda supported a draft law that would have led to the imprisonment of doctors involved in in-vitro fertilisation (a proposal that Law and Justice has since withdrawn). These moves were also part of a concerted effort by Mr Komorowski to appeal to the centre-left voters who are crucial to him securing victory in the first round. At the same time, the President steered clear of moral-cultural issues where public attitudes were much more socially conservative, such as same-sex civil partnerships.

Mr Komorowski’s supporters also tried to taint Mr Duda with political scandal by linking him to a controversy over the SKOK credit union system founded by the (currently suspended) Law and Justice Senator Grzegorz Bierecki, which has been criticised by the Polish financial regulator. The liberal-left ‘Gazeta Wyborcza’ newspaper claimed that, in 2009, Mr Duda played a key role as head of the presidential legal office in persuading the then President Lech Kaczyński (Jarosław’s twin brother) to refer to the Constitutional Tribunal a law that would have placed the SKOK system under the supervision of the regulator. This, they argue, stalled the law’s entry into force thereby allowing bad debts to grow and Mr Bierecki to transfer assets to other accounts. Mr Duda’s supporters argue that these accusations are a politically-motivated smear and he has resisted attempts by Civic Platform deputies to force him to appear before a parliamentary committee to respond to them.

In fact, the ‘SKOK affair’ is too complicated for most voters to disentangle and Mr Duda’s campaign staff diverted public attention away from his alleged involvement by claiming that Mr Komorowski had close personal ties with the management of the bankrupt Wołomin SKOK credit union. For a time, they were also able to re-focus the campaign onto the issue of Polish accession to the Eurozone. Although there is overwhelming public support in Poland for EU membership, most Poles also oppose their country adopting the single currency. While Mr Duda has opposed rapid Eurozone accession, Mr Komorowski sees it as essential for Poland to be part of the EU’s decision-making core and has, on a number of occasions, urged the government to accelerate its preparations; although sensing his vulnerability tried to downplay the issue during the campaign. For sure, Mr Duda found himself on the back-foot as a result of his unpopular stance on the European convention and in-vitro fertilisation, although this may also have helped to strengthen his credibility among ‘religious right’ voters who comprise a core element of Law and Justice’s electoral base.

The rise of the ‘anti-system’ candidates

None of the minor candidates has been able to challenge the two front-runners although whether or not there is a second round run-off will depend on the extent to which they are able to peel away support from Mr Komorowski. Historian and TV personality Magdalena Ogórek – the candidate of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), the smaller left-wing opposition grouping – started the campaign in third place with 5-6% but lost support as the election progressed falling back to only 3-4%. Lacking any real political experience, Ms Ogórek has run a poor campaign that has been dogged by controversy from the outset and even appeared to dissociate herself from the Alliance (and, indeed, the left in general), leading to rumours that the party could withdraw support for her before polling day. The other centre-left presidential challenger is the controversial and flamboyant businessman Janusz Palikot whose anti-clerical Palikot Movement (RP), re-branded subsequently as ‘Your Movement’ (TR), came from nowhere to finish third in the most recent 2011 parliamentary election with just over 10% of the vote. However, since then it has seen its support slump and most of its parliamentary caucus defect to other parties, and, although Mr Palikot has run a very energetic campaign, the public appears to have grown weary of his erratic behaviour and constant political zig-zags. Similarly, Adam Jarubas – the deputy leader of the agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL), Civic Platform’s junior coalition partner – has failed to transcend his image as a regional politician. Mr Palikot and Mr Jarubas are currently polling around 1-2%.

The two minor contenders who appear to be making the biggest impact are the self-styled ‘anti-system’ candidates: economically libertarian and socially conservative MEP Janusz Korwin-Mikke, and charismatic rock singer and social activist Paweł Kukiz. Mr Korwin-Mikke is 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 European Parliament (EP) election with 7% of the vote. He was deposed as party leader and forced to set up his own grouping (called ‘KORWIN’) at the start of the year but steadily increased his support to around 4-5% and could come close to repeating his EP election success. However, the real ‘dark horse’ of election appears to be Mr Kukiz who gained momentum during the campaign on a platform of opening up and renewing the Polish political system through the introduction of single member parliamentary electoral constituencies. Mr Kukiz is polling 7-8% and could finish third, using his presidential success as a springboard to launch a new political movement.

Will a second round change the electoral dynamics?

As the campaign enters its final, decisive phase, Mr Komorowski’s support appears to have stabilised at around 40-50%, while Mr Duda has stalled on 25-30%. Although the benefits of Mr Duda’s early up-swing have now dissipated, it still looks increasingly likely (although not certain) that there will be a run-off. Nonetheless, Mr Komorowski remains the very clear favourite to win and a good result for Mr Duda would be securing more than 40% of the vote. However, if the election goes to a second round, the campaign could develop a new dynamic, making the outcome much less predictable; particularly if the two leading candidates go head-to-head in a debate, something that Mr Komorowski has avoided knowing it is a potential game-changer.

Interestingly, the narrowing of Mr Komorowski’s lead has coincided with Civic Platform apparently increasing its support. Having previously shown the two main groupings running neck-and-neck, most polls now suggest that the ruling party has opened up a small lead of around 5%. This is partly due to the Kopacz administration’s leftward tilt on moral-cultural issues which has consolidated its support among socially liberal voters. Moreover, having had its fingers burned earlier this year – when, faced with the prospect of strikes in the key electoral background Silesia region, Mrs Kopacz backed down from an attempt to reform Poland’s ailing coal industry thereby setting off a further wave of social protests – the government has put off introducing any further major reforms until after the election, focusing instead on voter-friendly social and welfare policies. However, the polarisation of party support in the presidential election also appears to have shored up support for Civic Platform. Ironically, while a good presidential election result for Mr Duda would provide Law and Justice with a huge morale boost and valuable momentum in the run-up to the parliamentary poll, it could also help to mobilise the ruling party’s more passive supporters.