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16 July 2020updated 26 Jul 2021 1:15pm

Eight ways Poland’s liberal opposition can build on the presidential election

Opponents of Poland’s ruling PiS party must now avoid short-sighted squabbles and think long term.

By Annabelle Chapman

As the dust settles after Poland’s close-run presidential election, supporters of the defeated challenger Rafał Trzaskowski, Warsaw’s relatively progressive mayor, are already wondering what he will do next.

In the election on 12 July, Andrzej Duda, the incumbent president backed by the ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, grasped a narrow victory with 51 per cent of the vote compared to Trzaskowski’s 49 per cent. This corresponds to around ten million votes for Trzaskowski, a considerable achievement given how he joined the race at the last minute and was repeatedly attacked by the public television broadcaster. By no means were all of these from supporters of the 48-year-old mayor, or his centrist Civic Platform (PO) party (which governed Poland from 2007-15, largely under the leadership of Donald Tusk, who went on to be the president of the European Council). Yet all were a vote against Duda’s vision of Poland.

Trzaskowski did exceptionally well among young voters, winning more than 60 per cent of the under-30s, according to the exit poll (in the over-60 group, these proportions were reversed in Duda’s favour). “Over these two months, Polish women and men who want change woke up and clearly voted for change,” said Trzaskowski the day after the election.

For Trzaskowski and the wider opposition, the challenge will now be to harness and nurture this potential. Already, some in PO are speculating that Trzaskowski could lead a broad movement. In an interview with privately owned broadcaster TVN on 14 July, Trzaskowski said he wants to “rebuild” political parties (he plans to stay on as mayor of Warsaw, too). A separate initiative called Poland 2050 was recently set up by Szymon Hołownia, the liberal Catholic television presenter who ran as an independent in the election and came third in the first round on 28 June.

But while Trzaskowski and Hołownia’s respective plans are both still vague for now, it is not too early for all those opposed to Duda to begin getting their act together. Here are eight suggestions to start with:

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1. Have a programme

Whatever one thinks of the current ruling party, PiS has a consistent ideology and programme, with flagship policies such as 500+, a monthly payment of 500 złoty (£100) per child. This contrasts with the opposition, which has tended to be vague, reactive or has cobbled together a programme just before an election.

Firstly, the opposition needs to figure out what it truly stands for. Falling back on simply being “against PiS” is not enough. Secondly, it needs a simple set of policies that can last for several years, not just one election. For example, this might include making a commitment to introduce civil partnerships, rather than dodging or wavering on the subject.

2. Beware of one-hit wonders

There have been several “one-hit wonders” in Polish politics over the past decade: parties or movements set up by a charismatic leader that win seats in one election before disintegrating or being absorbed by one of the main parties. Recent examples include the centre-left “Spring” party founded by the former mayor Robert Biedron, or the liberal “Modern” party established by the economist Ryszard Petru.

To avoid this fate, Trzaskowski’s movement needs to appeal to a wider sentiment and avoid cult-of-personality territory.

3. Build on the cities…

Out of 107 cities in Poland, almost all have mayors from the opposition or who ran as independents. In the mayoral elections in 2018, PiS candidates only won in a handful of them. In Warsaw, Trzaskowski beat the PiS candidate in the first round with 56.7 per cent of the vote. Other opposition mayors include Aleksandra Dulkiewicz in Gdańsk.

With PiS controlling the central government, the opposition should use these cities – which Trzaskowski called “islands of freedom” in an interview with me last year – to test its programme and start implementing its vision for Poland.

4. …but venture outside them

That said, Poland is not just Warsaw, Wrocław, Gdańsk and other major cities, and the opposition cannot limit itself to relatively comfortable, urban voters. Part of PiS’s electoral success since 2015 has been reaching out to voters who feel left behind by the changes in Poland since 1989, while portraying the opposition as out-of-touch “elites”.

To challenge this, the opposition should continue building its support base outside the cities. One way to do so is by working with local organisations, from anti-smog movements to women’s groups.

5. Have the “old guard” step back

Polish politics has long been dominated by the Solidarity-era generation, who spent their formative years opposing communism. Gradually, this is changing. In this election, for the first time, all the main candidates were in their thirties or forties (Duda and Trzaskowski were both born in 1972).

The opposition should cultivate young leaders – ones socialised in today’s Europe – even if they do not always toe the party line, and put them forward for major posts. (PO’s original presidential candidate was in her sixties; Trzaskowski joined the race after she pulled out.) The “old guard” of party stalwarts should take a step back and retain an advisory role. It should also invest in the next generation of bright young people in their twenties or early thirties.

6. Let women shine

At his election rallies, Trzaskowski was joined by his wife, Małgorzata Trzaskowska, who pledged to become an advocate for women’s rights as first lady. Though far from cutting-edge feminism, it was a simple, family-focused message that could resonate with women voters, including those who tend to avoid politics.

More generally, the Polish opposition should move talented women politicians into the foreground and give them the opportunity to lead. Figures to watch include Barbara Nowacka, a progressive MP whose party is allied with PO. On a related note: the opposition needs to take women’s and reproductive rights seriously, which means standing up to the social conservatism of PiS and its traditional ally, the Roman Catholic Church in Poland.

7. Anchor Poland in Europe

PiS has long accused the opposition of being unpatriotic. Trzaskowski does not “have a Polish heart and soul”, said PiS’s chairman Jarosław Kaczyński during the campaign.

This is a false choice. The opposition should instead focus on a strong Poland in a strong Europe. As Trzaskowski put it during the campaign, the country “is truly strong when it is strong and influential in the EU”. This will offer voters an alternative to PiS, which, while not opposed to EU membership, presents the EU in terms of “us” versus “them”.

8. Think long term

With the presidential election over, and no more elections scheduled until 2022, there is no end to PiS rule in sight. Yet politics is a long game and winning elections is only part of it. Deep political change involves stepping out of one’s comfort zone, engaging with new social groups, and gradually transforming the language of politics into one of respect and tolerance.

With that in mind, the Polish opposition must avoid short-sighted squabbles, think long term and focus on building the country they want the next generation to inherit.

Annabelle Chapman writes for the Economist and Monocle

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