With the re-election of the ruling party’s candidate Andrzej Duda to the Polish presidency, the opposition has just missed a last chance to restore democracy in a deeply divided Poland.
On July 12, Poles reelected incumbent Andrzej Duda (PiS ally) as President, with 51% of the votes, against 49% for the liberal mayor of Warsaw Rafal Trzaskowski (Civic Platform, PO). Taking into account the fact that the next national electoral deadline (the legislative elections) does not take place before 2023, Duda’s victory gives PiS the freedom to continue the work of the first mandate for the next three years: dismantling the system of checks and balances, intensifying the politicization of the judiciary and public media, along with the growing detachment from Poland’s European partners and the stoking of national pride and sentiment to the point of caricature.
With Duda’s re-election, Poland is taking a great leap into the unknown.
A setback for the opposition
The presidential election was the last chance for the opposition to re-balance the power dynamics between the current ruling coalition, dominated by the conservative PiS party of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and the liberal opposition, an opportunity that would have ensured a better functioning democracy.
Even though Poland is a parliamentary system, where the government and the Prime Minister have much more prerogatives than the President, the latter has some power that shouldn’t be underestimated, including the right to veto legislation. A President affiliated to an opposition party would have made it possible to block a number of controversial laws, including those pertaining to judicial reform, the media or abortion (to override a presidential veto, the Parliament needs a “super-majority” of three-fifths of lawmakers).
The President is also in charge of signing off on the appointment of judges to the Constitutional Court, whose role has proved essential in the years-long battle between the ruling party and the judiciary.
Last week’s election outcome decided otherwise, and the only instrument now in the hands of the opposition to try to slow down or counter the actions of the current government is its control of the Senate, the upper house of Parliament, which has much less power than the PiS-controlled Sejm.
Will these three years of (almost unlimited) freedom of action pave the way for further political radicalization and lead to the transformation of the conservative Polish regime, which until then was quite reminiscent of what the country experienced in the 1930’s, into a new type of regime, an illiberal democracy, following the Hungarian example?
The next few months will no doubt provide an answer to this question. But the course of the election and its results already give some clues as to what lies ahead for Poland.
Polish society more fractured than ever
In the first round of the presidential election, the two lead candidates alone received 73% of the votes, reflecting the deep divisions in Polish society. In addition, the second round was marked by a record-high turnout (68.18 %), almost as much as during the 1995 presidential elections (68.23 %), a national record.
Andrzej Duda’s narrow victory in the second round further underlines the growing and deepening fracture between “Poland A” and “Poland B”, between the (perceived) winners and losers of the transition – a division also reflected in a wide range of other issues relating to lifestyle, Europe or national identity.
But the fault lines are not always where we’re used to find them. There undoubtedly is a strong division between urban (66.5% for Trzaskowski) and rural voters (63.2% for Duda), and a significant cleavage between the conservative east of the country and the more liberal west. As if Poland was unable to free itself from its past and its old demons.
But electoral studies show that the social and political divisions between “two Polands” is more complex. PiS voters belong to the more popular categories of the population who feel they have lost more than they gained from liberalism and whose living standards were greatly improved by PiS’ social measures. But this electorate is not restricted to rural areas, and can also be found in larger cities.
Meanwhile, the nationalist rhetoric of the ruling party also finds strong supporters among the Polish middle class who, after benefiting from the astounding economic growth of recent years, are starting to ask for more recognition on the European and international stage.
Newer divisions are also being added to the traditional cleavages. In particular a generational gap between the young, educated and more cosmopolitan Poles vs. the often less-educated 50+ who consider – right or wrong – that they haven’t benefited from the hard-earned fruits of their labour and are now scared of losing everything they’ve gained with difficulty.
The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party should be concerned about these fractures: it can be dangerous to be supported by those whose lives are now largely behind them and who are more concerned about keeping what they have than building something new. Such a mindset can pave the way for entrepreneurial inertia, value conservatism and low competitiveness – rather weak assets in a 21st century world.
During the election campaign, PiS attempted to further radicalise and accentuate these oppositions, in particular through its aggressive rhetoric on the so-called “LGBT ideology”. While its attempt to mobilize its base by singling out a presumably dangerous “Otherness” did not work as well as its anti-migrant discourse in 2015-2016, it accentuated and reinforced long-enduring fractures that run through Polish society, transforming political differences into an existential conflict, where the life or death of the nation is presumably at stake.
Deepening of the political crisis
The narrow gap between both contenders in the presidential election, along with numerous irregularities observed throughout the campaign, has already led to the results being challenged and questioned. In the medium and long term, this might further de-legitimize Andrzej Duda in the eyes of a significant part of the country’s population and political elite.
A word should also be said about the complexity of the ruling coalition (United Right) where PiS, although holding a majority, does not govern alone. At the height of the COVID-19 crisis, the leader of junior coalition partner Porozumenia, Jaroslaw Gowin, publicly opposed holding the elections on the planned date, and suggested postponing the vote by two years. After his proposal was ignored by PiS, he eventually resigned from his government post. Other Porozumenia members also opposed PiS’ efforts to maintain the election on May 10, an episode that revealed strong tensions within the governing coalition. More broadly, Poland’s ruling coalition partners differ on many other domestic and international issues.
PiS itself is marked by strong internal tensions between a moderate wing, represented by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, and a more radical wing led by party chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Zbigniew Ziobro. Although technically only party leader and member of the lower house of Parliament, Jaroslaw Kaczynski is the de-facto leader of Poland; he takes all the important decisions while the battle for his succession intensifies behind the scenes.
The ruling coalition being only at the beginning of its second mandate (2019-2023), the Sejm might still be dissolved and snap elections could be held, reshaping the political landscape before 2023. Whatever happens, the deleterious and unstable political climate prevailing today is only deepening Poland’s political crisis.
Structural weakening of democracy in Poland
For democracy to work, there must be an efficient system of checks and balances that protects the actors who intervene in the public arena and guarantees everyone has the freedom to express themselves freely and criticize other actors, first and foremost the state, without fear of repercussion or censorship.
Every since its return to power in 2015, PiS has set its sights on two of the most important of these “counter-powers”, the judicial system and the media. In order to consolidate the state’s power, presented as the sole “protector of the nation”, legal and institutional reforms pushed through by PiS have considerably reduced and jeopardized the independence of the Constitutional Court, the Administrative Court and other top bodies of Poland’s judicial system.
While media pluralism and freedom of information remain effective today, public media have become the government’s mouthpiece and an instrument for the ruling party to launch slanderous campaigns against the opposition. Its “coverage” of the presidential campaign, in that regard, often bordered caricature. That was notably the case during the first presidential debate, where questions had been drafted by Duda’s own staff, showing him in the most favourable light to the detriment of the other candidates, disadvantaged in all aspects, from camera framing to speaking time. This is one of the most visible signs of the weakening of Polish democracy.
For democracy to function, unwritten rules must also be respected. One of the most important ones is mutual tolerance and respect, which implies accepting one’s political opponent as legitimate and showing some form of restraint in the exercise of power. These informal and implicit norms are also critical to ensure the trust of the population in the democratic system.
The Polish presidential election achieved the exact opposite. During the Covid-19 crisis, President Duda continued to criss-cross the country and dominate the media landscape, while the other candidates, unable to hold campaign meetings due to the ban on large events, had to make do with a presence on social media.
And to capitalize on Duda’s portrayal as the protector of the nation and its management of the crisis, PiS tried to maintain at all costs the election during lockdown, even if it meant pushing an unconstitutional voting reform. The bill allowing postal voting itself contained many legal flaws, and failed to guarantee all Poles would be able to vote – in other words, the universality of suffrage, one of the founding principles of democracy, could not be ensured.
The televised debate between the two remaining presidential candidates ahead of the July 12 vote quite possibly set another record in absurdity – with Andrzej Duda refusing to take part in a debate organized by private television stations and accusing Rafal Trzaskowski of “wanting to organize a debate under the protection of foreign media”; Trzaskowski, for his part, refused to hold a debate on public television, pointing out the debate would clearly be staged in favour of Duda. The so-called “debate” eventually took place in two different places, with each candidate left “debating” alone.
Finally, Andrzej Duda began celebrating his victory even before the final results were officially announced, inviting his opponent to come and shake hands with him at the presidential palace presumably to mark the end of hostilities. This lack of respect for one’s political opponent, and disregard for the basic rules of the democratic game, can ultimately symbolize the downfall of democracy. Beyond a certain point, working with one another becomes impossible, and all that remains is violence.
The Polish election on the European stage
But the presidential election in Poland was not just a domestic issue: it was also deeply European. For Poland – the 6th largest economy in the EU, 5th in terms of purchasing power parity and one of the fastest-growing countries in the bloc (5% growth before the Covid-19 crisis) weighs heavily in Europe. Brexit is already leading the EU to refocus its attention of the Franco-German couple and shift towards Central Europe. French President Emmanuel Macron demonstrated this shifting of dynamics during his February 2020 visit to Poland, where he attempted to relaunch the “Weimar Triangle” format – an informal cooperation forum between France, Germany and Poland.
The victory of PiS in the presidential elections evidently strengthens Europe’s illiberal forces, already at odds with the European liberal democracies on a number of issues. Last week, while the Polish campaign was in full swing, the leaders of Hungary, Serbia and Slovenia reaffirmed their commitment to the principle of national sovereignty.
On 10 July, on the eve of the second round of the presidential election and a week before an extraordinary summit of heads of state and government to decide on the post-Covid recovery plan and the next EU budget (2021-2027), EU Council President Charles Michel presented his proposals, including a mechanism that makes EU funds conditional on compliance with democratic principles and the rule of law. The proposal will have to be approved by a qualified majority of the Council (at least 55% of member states representing 65% of the population). Unsurprisingly, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban already threatened to veto the plan. He’s now sure to find a safe ally in Poland.
Main photo credit: Andrzej Duda’s official Facebook page
By Roman Krakovsky
Historian and lecturer at the University of Geneva, Roman Krakovsky specializes on Central and Eastern Europe. This article was originally published in French by Le Courrier d’Europe Centrale, an official partner of Kafkadesk.