In Poland, the presidential elections are frequently a turning point: a new beginning, followed by changes within the party system. This rule is likely to apply after the re-election of President Andrzej Duda, who has been supported by the nationalist-conservative government of the United Right. So, how is that possible to foretell a shift, since the very same person will continue to inhabit the Presidential Palace will remain – so theoretically all should remain status quo?
In the first electoral round on 28th June (after the elections had been called off and hadn’t taken place at the initially set date on 10th May), there were 11 candidates. This is not a lot for Poland, a country used to see many more candidates running. But it is true, today as in the past, that only a handful of them were seen as serious contenders. Only those few would enjoy spotlight, would appear in media and in the opinion polls. Usually they would also be supported by the more relevant ones among the Polish political parties.
The campaign in the times of pandemic was evidently different, it was of course harder to collect 100.000 votes (required from anyone willing to stand as a candidate). Besides, the government of the United Right has been changing the rules of the game still ahead of the elections, altering the electoral code, shortening the official deadlines – all to make it even more difficult for all potential runners, aside from their own Andrzej Duda.
“The consequences of these most bizarre elections in the history of democratic Poland apply to all political parties”
Still in May, opinion polls predicted an outright win for Duda in the first round. The opposition’s candidates were far behind. The candidate of the Civic Platform (Coalition, KO – Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska) had no chance to enter the second round, which was telling, as KO is the largest opposition group inside of Sejm (Lower Chamber). After the failure of the state, ruled by the Law and Justice Party (PiS), which showed incapable to actually organise the elections as intended in May, Civic Platform changed strategy and replaced Kidawa-Blonska by a new candidate: Rafał Trzaskowski, the mayor of Warsaw. This translated into ‘restart and reboot’ of the campaign, which resembled at this point a marathon, having started as early as in March.
The consequences of these most bizarre elections in the history of democratic Poland apply to all political parties. The Left scored badly, reaching a new historical low – which they wouldn’t have dreamt about even in their worst nightmares. Robert Biedroń, MEP of Wiosna, ended the race with a result that in percentage was even worse than what a TV celebrity, who had run on the Left’s behalf five years earlier, had managed to scramble together. His 6th position is even more painful now, when not even a year ago the Left celebrated success, having returned after a four years break into parliament, with a rather solid result. After this major defeat and after left wing voters already went to support Trzaskowski in the first round, the Left is yet again at the crossroads, from which they need to start over again their efforts to rebuild both the position and the image of a trustworthy actor.
Equally, the idea of transforming the rural Polish People’s (Peasants) Party (PSL) into a modern Christian-democratic party turned out to be another major failure. Their leader, Wladyslaw Kosiniak-Kamysz, ended on the 5th place and is now bound to face a battle for the unity of the party he leads. Since the parliamentary elections 2019, the United Right has been looking greedily at the elected representatives of PSL, hoping to acquire them and their support without actually officially opening the governing coalition. Now they may have it their way, since the disappointment inside of PSL is major and the next elections, which could change anything, are only going to take place three years from now.
“The idea of transforming the rural Polish People’s (Peasants) Party (PSL) into a modern Christian-democratic party turned out to be another major failure”
The 4th result of Krzysztof Boask, the candidate supported by the nationalists, proves that the entry of his party (Confederation Freedom and Independence) into the Sejm almost a year ago, wasn’t a coincidence. But the victory of Andrzej Duda – who in his campaign hadn’t hesitated to use antisemitic rhetoric and to attack LGBTQI-people, who showed off with the support of the Catholic Church and underlined his commitment to nationalism – suggests that radical right will face some problems. Half of the voters, who in the first round had opted for Bosak, went to cast ballots for Duda in the second one – despite the fact that Bosak himself publicly refused to offer Duda his support.
After having taken over this fragment of the radical right electorate, it will now be for PiS to tempt the politicians of the Confederation to join in and to taste joys of governing. Should this strategy fail, public media (which are colonised by the governing PiS) will open a frontal attack on the nationalists – in the same vicious way they had practiced vis-à-vis politicians of the democratic opposition. Whilst the largest private TV station keeps on running a crusade against nationalists and their rhetoric, Confederation may find itself squeezed and unable to do neither: reach out to new voters and/or consolidate the electorate that has been standing behind it so far.
After these presidential elections, there is also going to be a new party – founded by Szymon Hołownia, who gained almost 14% of the votes. He was a strong contender, whom, also because of the weakness of Kidawa-Blonska, polls were guaranteeing entry to the second round still in May (should a second round be necessary). Hołownia managed to attract those citizens who seemed exhausted with the rivalry of the two big parties (PiS and Civic Platform). They saw Hołownia as a symbol of a new quality of politics. In fact, searching for political alternatives among candidates previously unrelated to politics has become a symbol of the current times, not only as reaction to the pandemic. Let’s not forget the 20% of support, which the Rockstar Paweł Kukiz managed to achieve just five years ago. Even though from his political capital almost nothing is left, making him an abandoned MP, balancing on the fringes of political life. Against this backdrop however, Hołownia seems to be learning from his predecessors’ mistakes. He announced a titanic work at the grassroots, aiming at the creation of a party anchored in a community of experts keeps – and via separate associations – the invitation open for all those who find political parties (and membership in them) repulsive.
Changes are also to be expected within the largest opposition party, the Civic Platform. For its operation model to survive the presidential elections, they would have needed to win them. Despite the vast support for Rafał Trzaskowski, the plan to stop the victorious machinery of PiS failed. This means that the party, or, to be precise, the coalition of which Civic Platform is at the centre, needs to reinvent itself. This is bound to be a painful process, and nobody can guarantee its success.
“Despite the vast support for Rafał Trzaskowski, the plan to stop the victorious machinery of PiS failed”
The situation of PiS and its two smaller partners inside of the United Right coalition since 2015, appears to be the only one not to have changed. There are many rumours about the upcoming political retirement of Jarosław Kaczyński, who was expected to see the re-election of Duda as the last milestone in his project of changing the system without a necessity to adapt the Constitution. Kaczynski’s unquestioned leadership, close to a cult, has meant, however, that he has not raised leaders who could replace him. PiS, since its beginnings, was in hands of the Kaczyński twins: first Lech, then Jarosław. A change of leader may trigger the de-composition on the right side of the political stage. And because Duda hasn’t won re-election by a large majority, it is likely that before leaving politics, Kaczynski will desire to punish those, who made such a cheap and risky spectacle of these elections. This may prompt not only the reconstruction of the government, but also changes concerning coalition partners. And it is an old truth that in a party system, like the Polish one, in which the vessels are so closely connected, even a small castling may provoke a huge domino effect.
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