The presidential election in Poland was an intolerant affair—and the argument isn’t over yet.
On July 12th, the second round of the presidential election took place in Poland. Not only the unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic but also its significance for the country’s future made this a special race. In the end, supported by the United Right coalition, the incumbent, Andrzej Duda, won by the skin of his teeth over Rafał Trzaskowski of Civic Platform (PO).
At first sight, nothing has changed: the Law and Justice party (PiS) has retained control over the executive branch. But a more nuanced look reveals deep division in Polish society and resistance to national-conservative rule. Can that however be effectively channelled?
The presidential campaign started early in 2020, with the final election date announced on February 5th. More than ten candidates managed to register their committees officially. But from the beginning it was clear this election would be less about competing visions and ideas and more about whether Duda could be challenged and the domination of national-conservatives broken at the state level.
Before the outbreak of Covid-19, the campaign was conventional: media appearances, meetings with voters, interviews and press conferences. In mid-March, however, everything changed due to the pandemic. Yet while all other candidates suspended activities involving face-to-face meetings and large gatherings, Duda was still travelling around the country, assisted by the public broadcaster.
Incumbency always brings advantage. But these non-essential journeys at the peak of the epidemic—together with the active support of high-ranking members of government, such as the PiS prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, and, most importantly, the involvement of the public broadcaster as a campaign tool—brought a lot of criticism.
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Uncertainty about the final result made Jarosław Kaczynski, the leader of PiS, attempt to run the vote on May 10th, despite public-safety recommendations and the will of voters. The election was finally postponed but Kaczynski’s desperation to hold it before the aggravating post-pandemic crisis, given Duda’s middling popularity, remained.
Especially before the second and final round in July, the competition became very aggressive, particularly in the campaign of the incumbent, embracing homophobic rhetoric and xenophobic sentiments. This all threw into question whether the election was free, fair and honest.
Anxiety about this election proved a great mobiliser: turnout reached 68 per cent, unseen in Poland since the mid-1990s. The result revealed the extent of the polarisation of Polish society, most manifest in the distribution of support for the two candidates who met in the second round. Both received more than 10 million votes and the outcome was determined by a mere 420,000 ballots.
The most important factors distinguishing these two groups of voters were age, education and place of residence. In a nutshell, younger and better-educated voters, living in the metropoles and other cities, chose Trzaskowski. Older citizens from rural areas, pensioners and farmers, as also the unemployed, chose Duda.
These socio-economic divisions also partly corresponded with the geographical distribution of support. Essentially, apart from big cities in the eastern part, western Poland voted differently than eastern Poland—the latter more dedicated to ‘traditional values’, with the role of the Catholic Church more significant. Such multi-faceted cultural, socio-economic and territorial concentration of voter preferences can be also observed in other countries (such as the United States, Italy or Germany).
Poles abroad also played a significant role in this election. Not only did their voter turnout vary around 80 per cent but Trzaskowski won a vast majority of their votes (74 per cent). There was however a big difference in voter preferences between the Polish communities in the EU and in north America and post-Soviet countries, where Duda was an unquestionable leader, most probably thanks to a new course in the foreign policy of the national-conservative government.
The political landscape in Poland has not yet solidified. Although the national-conservative coalition, led by PiS, has strengthened its power grab, it might be concerned with strong resistance within the society, particularly visible at the local level in charismatic mayors—and indeed with the steadily growing support for the far right, which in the first round appealed to almost 7 per cent of voters.
The opposition has proved once again it can mobilise but still cannot offer a convincing alternative to the decade-long, entrenched conflict between a national-conservative but social vision of Poland (PiS) and a pro-European but market-liberal economic model (PO). The need for change was highlighted by an out-of-the-box candidate who finished third in the first round: Szymon Hołownia, a Catholic TV celebrity, convinced almost 14 per cent of voters with his message of reconciliation beyond the political establishment.
As for the Polish left, its once-promising candidate Robert Biedroń squandered his support. Starting with double-digit backing in February, in June he received only 2.2 per cent of votes. This sudden decline might have resulted from the PO replacing its unappealing initial candidate, Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska, with the charismatic Trzaskowski, the only realistic competitor to Duda. Nevertheless, the Polish left is in a weak condition and the very progressive topics Biedroń was trying to bring into public debate did not seem to resonate with voters. A shift of the political mainstream to the right is visible in Poland.
Having secured its power till at least 2023—the next parliamentary election—there are fears the governing coalition will launch a final strike on the Polish judiciary and independent media, to finish the project of state capture. In the eyes of many, there will be no reconciliation but rather a further turning of the screw, not only on the political opposition but also on impartial critics of government actions. The opposition, in turn, has still not learnt the lesson from a fifth lost election in a row—blaming and shaming PiS voters for their ‘ignorant and venal’ electoral choices, instead of developing strategies to regain their trust.
Meanwhile, due to the dubious campaign by Duda, and numerous irregularities in organising the election abroad, around 6,000 protests about the election have been submitted to the Supreme Court by citizens and watchdog organisations. Should these complaints prove admissible and, if so, well-founded, the final result of the election could still be questioned. The dust does not yet seem to have settled in Poland and the fight over the presidential office continues.
Dr Maria Skóra is a researcher and political analyst in Berlin. At the Institut für Europäische Politik, she analysing rule-of-law developments in the European Union. She is also a policy fellow at the think-tank Das Progressive Zentrum, hosting the annual Progressive Governance Summit.