Has Polish President Andrzej Duda’s first year been a success?

by Aleks Szczerbiak

In the year since he was sworn in as President Andrzej Duda has become Poland’s most popular politician and appears increasingly confident in his international role. But he still has to build up his authority within the ruling party if he is to become a significant independent player on the political scene.

Forced to take sides

Last May, in one of the biggest electoral upsets in post-communist Polish politics Andrzej Duda – the candidate of the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the then main opposition grouping – defeated incumbent President and odds-on favourite Bronisław Komorowski, backed by the ruling centrist Civic Platform (PO), by 51.6% to 48.5%. His success paved the way for Law and Justice’s stunning victory in the October parliamentary election when it was the first political grouping in post-1989 Poland to secure an outright majority, and Mr Duda’s campaign manager, party deputy leader Beata Szydło, became prime minister.

Although careful not to support Law and Justice overtly, Mr Duda used the various political and constitutional instruments at his disposal to promote the party’s programme of so-called ‘good change’ (dobra zmiana) in the run-up to the October poll. For example, in his first major initiative as President he proposed holding a referendum on the same day as the election on one of Law and Justice’s key campaign pledges: reversing the outgoing government’s extremely unpopular pension reforms, that raised the retirement age to 67 from 60 for women and 65 for men (although the referendum proposal was voted down by the Civic Platform-dominated Senate).

Almost immediately after Law and Justice took office, Mr Duda was forced to take sides in an extremely controversial and polarising political dispute over the membership of the constitutional tribunal, a powerful body that rules on the constitutionality of Polish laws. The new government annulled the appointment of five judges elected by the previous parliament to the 15-member body. Earlier these judges were unable to assume their posts because Mr Duda did not accept their oaths of office. However, the tribunal itself ruled that while the appointment of the two judges replacing those whose terms of office expired in December was unconstitutional the other three were nominated legally. Government supporters, in turn, argued that the tribunal did not have the right to make judgements about the constitutionality of parliamentary appointments, and Mr Duda swore in five judges nominated by the new parliament instead

The move met with widespread criticism from most of the opposition and legal establishment, who accused the government and President of violating judicial independence and undermining the fundamentals of democracy and the rule of law. As a consequence, thousands of Poles participated in demonstrations organised by the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), an anti-Law and Justice civic movement. The government’s supporters, however, placed the blame for the crisis squarely on the outgoing administration, which they argued tried to appoint five judges illegally just before the election to pack the tribunal with Law and Justice opponents. More broadly they defended these actions as necessary to restore pluralism and balance to the tribunal, which they said had been expropriated by supporters of the previous governing party, and claimed that opposition was being orchestrated by well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elites.

Mr Duda paid a high political price for his unswerving support for the government on this issue. Apart from having to expend much time and political capital explaining his actions, by bringing the presidency into the epicentre of party conflict the crisis made it increasingly difficult for Mr Duda to build bridges with milieu not necessarily naturally sympathetic to Law and Justice, one of his greatest achievements during the presidential election campaign. In fact, the problem was as much the way in which the decisions were taken as their substance: four of the Law and Justice-nominated judges were sworn in at a ceremony held literally in the middle of the night before the tribunal was due to rule on the constitutionality of the earlier appointments. Opinion surveys conducted by the CBOS polling agency found a 20% increase (to 40%) in negative evaluations of the President between November and December, while the number who did not trust Mr Duda rose from 19% to 30%.

Struggling to carve out an independent profile

More broadly, Mr Duda has struggled to carve out an independent profile for himself in his first year as President. The presidency has a particular position in the Polish political system. It is not simply a ceremonial role and, in addition to a strong electoral mandate, retains some important constitutional powers such as: the right to initiate legislation, refer bills to the constitutional tribunal, and, perhaps most significantly, a suspensive veto that requires a three-fifths parliamentary majority to over-turn. However, Mr Duda has quickly signed all of the Law and Justice government’s bills into law. Indeed, a December 2015 survey by the IBRiS agency found that by a majority of respondents (54% to 35%) felt that he did not take his decisions independently of Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński who, although he does not hold any formal state positions, exercises a powerful behind-the-scenes influence in determining the government’s programmatic and strategic priorities.

Moreover, the President’s competencies are much less significant than those of, say, his French counterpart and real executive power lies with the prime minister. So it is difficult for him to carve out a distinctive role in the domestic political sphere, especially when a presidential term coincides with that of a government led by his political grouping. As soon as the Law and Justice government was elected, therefore, Mr Duda’s promises went on the back-burner and attention shifted to the new administration’s legislative programme. For example, the government’s priority during its first months in office was introducing its costly but generous (and extremely popular) ‘500 plus’ child subsidy programme, which Mr Duda supported but in most citizens’ minds was associated primarily with the Szydło administration. Mr Duda’s two flagship campaign pledges, lowering the retirement age and increasing tax allowances, languished in parliament for several months and, although the government has promised to bring forward legislation in the autumn, it is still not clear when they will be implemented. Moreover, when it appeared to threaten the stability of the financial sector, the President was forced to row back from his key election pledge to help the country’s half-a-million foreign currency (mainly Swiss franc) mortgage holders (who had lost out as a result of the depreciation of the Polish currency in recent years) by forcing banks to convert their loans to złoties.

It is naïve to expect Mr Duda to distance himself from policies which are almost identical to the ones on which he was also elected. Everything suggests that he shares Mr Kaczyński’s political philosophy and perspectives on most issues and personally supports most if not all of the government’s decisions. At the same time, refusing to sign one of the government’s flagship bills would be incomprehensible to Mr Duda’s political base, and while it might draw some short-term praise from Law and Justice opponents they would quickly revert to criticising him again. Mr Duda is also a relatively young politician and may have future ambitions to take over the Law and Justice leadership when Mr Kaczyński eventually stands down, so it is not in his long-term interests either to alienate the party’s core supporters.

Prioritising defence and foreign policy

However, Mr Duda is aware that in order to secure the 50% of the votes that he needs for re-election he also has to appeal to more centrist voters beyond the Law and Justice hard core. Consequently, he has been trying to steadily carve out a more independent political role for himself. The first clear indication of this came in April during the sixth anniversary of the Smoleńsk tragedy, a plane crash in which the then Law and Justice-backed President Lech Kaczyński, Jarosław’s twin brother, and 95 others were killed while on their way to commemorate the 1940 Soviet massacre of Polish officers in the Katyń forest in western Russia. The air disaster is still an open wound for Law and Justice, and Mr Kaczyński and some party leaders have not only accused the former Civic Platform-led government of negligence in planning the flight and mishandling its aftermath but also appeared to countenance assassination as a possible cause of the crash. In his speech at the commemorations, Mr Duda made a symbolic appeal for national unity and mutual forgiveness, prompting Mr Kaczyński to respond that forgiveness was needed but only after those guilty of causing the tragedy were brought to justice.

At the same time, Mr Duda has marked out foreign affairs and defence policy as his main field of activity and appears increasingly confident in this role. Although foreign policy lies within the government’s domain, the Polish Constitution gives the President an informal oversight and co-ordinating role. He can also exercise a powerful informal influence through his foreign visits and high profile speeches on international issues. During last year’s elections Law and Justice made the sharpening of policy towards Russia a crucial test of its effectiveness in ensuring national security, and called for the July NATO summit in Warsaw to strengthen Poland’s defence infrastructure by securing a greater (and preferably permanent) Alliance military presence in the country. Mr Duda visited a large number of NATO member capitals to mobilise political support for Poland’s demands and, in the event, the summit agreed to strengthen the Alliance’s Eastern flank and confirmed the deployment of a 1,000-strong international battalion on a rotational basis on Polish territory.

The summit’s success no doubt contributed to Mr Duda’s steadily increasing popularity, together with the fact that as President he has demonstrated a more open style and greater ability to connect with ordinary Poles than the stereotypical Law and Justice politician. In spite of opposition attempts to portray him as a ‘partisan President’, July CBOS polls found that Mr Duda enjoyed a 56% approval rating (32% disapproval) and remained Poland’s most popular politician with 62% saying that they trusted him (24% did not). However, although he remains unswervingly loyal to the Law and Justice leader, Mr Duda’s attempts to develop a more independent profile also appear to have led to a cooling of relations with Mr Kaczyński, who some commentators argue has been distancing himself from the head of state. For example, the Law and Justice leader appeared to snub Mr Duda when he failed to include the President among those he listed as responsible for the NATO summit’s success; although he quickly corrected himself saying that this was a mistake. Nonetheless, Mr Kaczyński appears to treat not just Mr Duda but the whole government as the implementers rather than creators of policy and leaves little doubt that the party’s most important decision making centre remains the leader’s office.

Popular but lacking a clear role

One year is too soon for a proper evaluation of Mr Duda. For sure, it has been difficult for him to realise his concept of an ‘open’ presidency at a time when the political scene is so deeply polarised around bitter conflicts such as the constitutional tribunal crisis. However, although the crisis damaged Mr Duda’s ability to develop links with certain milieu, the opposition’s attempts to dub him a ‘partisan President’ do not appear to have harmed his approval ratings to any significant extent. Indeed, he remains one of Law and Justice’s greatest political assets with a significantly broader base of support than the party or any of its other leaders. Mr Duda’s main problem is that he has not yet found a clear role for himself and needs to build up his authority within the ruling party if he is to become a significant independent player on the Polish political scene.

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