A consolidation of power

The Presidential Palace in Warsaw, where Andrzej Duda will spend the next 5 years of his 2nd term
The Presidential Palace in Warsaw, where Andrzej Duda will spend the next 5 years of his 2nd term

Until two weeks ago, Poland was gripped by political fever. For weeks leading up to it, the presidential election was uppermost on many people’s minds. Things have calmed down now, but what the results mean for Poland’s future is being hotly debated. Marek Matraszek, Chairman of CEC Government Relations, looks at the implications of the election result for Poland and the international community in the company’s recent report Poland’s 2020 Presidential Election: analysis & results overview.

Andrzej Duda won the Polish Presidential election with 51.03% of the vote, with opposition Civic Coalition candidate and current Mayor of Warsaw Rafał Trzaskowski gaining 48.97%. The State Electoral Commission confirmed a 68.18% turnout, the second highest in post-1989 Polish electoral history.

The political implications of the victory, states Marek Matraszek, are significant for both the government and the opposition. “For the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, it represents the culmination of a brutal political campaign where the stakes were the future of the current government, the unity of the PiS party, and most likely the ability of the Polish right to win the 2023 parliamentary elections. Duda’s victory, albeit narrow, ensures that in the short term at least Prime Minister Morawiecki’s government will remain in power; although the PM did not have a central role in the campaign, a loss would have undermined his authority and increased factional pressure in PiS for his rapid removal. As it is, he seems secure in the short to medium term, and a Duda Presidency ensures that even controversial government legislation will not face a Presidential veto, as would have been the case had Trzaskowski won. That does not mean Morawiecki is entirely safe – PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński may yet decide to install a different Prime Minister at some point in the run-up to the 2023 elections, especially if the effects of the current economic crisis start to erode the government’s popular support. In the short term, a governmental reshuffle under Morawiecki looks to be on the cards. But regardless, PiS is now secure on power for another three and a half years.”

A second push?

Attention now turns to the effects President Duda’s victory will have on government policy.  “The strategy that led to Duda’s victory was based on the mobilization of PiS’s core voter base, and eschewing any movement to the centre. During a controversial campaign, Duda – as well as PiS forces in government-controlled media – played openly nationalist cards directed at Germany, Brussels and international “liberal” forces in culture, as well as stressing the continued need for expanded welfare and social policies. This,” claims Matraszek, “has strengthened the hand of those in PiS who are arguing for a “second push” in media and judicial reform to further marginalize their political and ideological opponents, as well as for a continued expansionist and statist economic policy.” Now that President Duda is back for five years, he goes on to say, “PiS and the government will be tempted to push in this direction too, knowing that even an opposition-controlled Senate will not be able to prevent more radical policies being enacted.”

And what does the election result mean for the government’s foreign policy? “Poland will continue on its Eurosceptic and pro-US path, although in the latter case much depends on the fate of Donald Trump in the US Presidential elections. A Democrat victory will likely shift US policy on Europe and Poland, and Poland may yet find itself in the position of lacking support in both Washington and Brussels for its domestic and foreign policies. On the other hand, wiser heads in the US, even under a new administration, will recognize that Poland remains a crucial partner in the face of a resurgent Russia, and that with no chance of a change of government before the end of 2023, it makes sense to work with the government there is. And in the EU too, despite the distaste of the Brussels elites towards Poland’s unashamed conservatism, the requirements of European stability in the face of Brexit, COVID, economic crisis, and the twin challenges of Russia and China, will mean little appetite for opening up another front of division in Europe against Poland.”

A glass half full… or half empty?

And what of the main opposition party? “For Rafał Trzaskowski and Civic Platform the result represents a mixed bag. On the one hand, Trzaskowski and PO can be satisfied that they ran Duda so closely, and that the votes garnered for their candidate represent significant capital in their longer-term plans for PO – recall that in the aborted May 10th elections, their then-candidate Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska had collapsed to below 10% before being replaced by Trzaskowski. The latter has single-handedly rescued PO as a political force, energized its activists, and mobilized a significant voter base. Trzaskowski’s near success, and the large number of votes he has garnered, will also make it difficult for independent candidate Szymon Hołownia, who achieved almost 14% of the vote in the first round and has now created his own political movement, to make headway in the next three years. Even in defeat, Trzaskowski has emerged as a new leading PO politician, and although he now returns to his job of being Warsaw Mayor, he has already announced his intention to form a broader political movement than PO itself, bringing into his big tent activists, NGOs, local government players and others who may not be members of PO itself. How this initiative will work in confrontation with a parochial PO activist base and an equally determined Szymon Holownia looking to build his own “civic movement”, remains to be seen.”

There are those, however – as Matraszek points out – who will take a different view of PO’s second presidential loss in a row, and that it doesn’t bode well for their future: “Conversely, however, it might not take long for the “glass half empty” school of critics within and outside PO to start shaping the narrative, which can easily be spun to PO’s disadvantage: namely, that PO failed to beat Duda not once but twice, fielding two different candidates, and that polls had consistently shown that Hołownia would have stood a better chance of beating Duda in the second round. Trzaskowski’s campaign tactic of gaining support by appealing to a range of diverse constituencies and support of the spectrum of failed first-round candidates was probably the only one to follow, but ultimately it proved insufficient when faced with the clear and focussed messages of Duda. Trzaskowski’s support in this perspective was one of “lent” votes expressing antiPiS frustrations, and will not carry over naturally into support for Trzaskowski or PO in a parliamentary election. Above all, criticism will be leveled at PO that this result shows that it has still to find the “magic keys” to the hearts of a majority of Poles, and that the core constituency of PiS – Catholic, conservative and somewhat nationalist – is not going to go away. Unless and until the antiPiS opposition finds a way of further moderating its message to appeal to this not-so-silent majority, it seems unlikely to succeed in the 2023 parliamentary elections, when it will again be divided across a range of parties whilst PiS remains a united bloc.”

The report ends on a broader note, highlighting the deep and increasingly entrenched divide in Polish society: “The further reality is that the narrowness of the victory of Duda confirms that Poland is – for now – divided almost equally, between not just political rivals or competing governmental policies, but in a much deeper sense – almost tribally, between two civilizational and ideological visions of Poland, laced with bitter emotions and fed by increasing levels of rhetoric on both sides. How this affects governance remains to be seen – and perhaps it is only now, after the elections, that real policies will be debated and decided.”

To read Poland’s 2020 Presidential Election: analysis & results overview by CEC Government Relations, click here.

Written by: Richard Stephens