How Poland's presidential runoff is dividing the nation

For liberal challenger Rafal Trzaskowski, “it will be an election between an open Poland and a Poland that seeks an enemy".

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The US election this November is not the only political contest this year in which voters are being asked to choose between open and closed visions of society. A similar battle is being fought in Poland, where the country now heads towards a presidential run-off between Andrzej Duda, the incumbent right-wing president, and Warsaw’s liberal mayor, Rafał Trzaskowski.

Poles went to vote on 28 June, after the original election in May was postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the official results, Duda came first with 43.5 per cent (which translates into around 8.5 million votes) followed by Trzaskowski, with 30.5 per cent. Szymon Hołownia, a liberal Catholic journalist who ran as an independent, was third with 13.9 per cent, followed by the far-right nationalist candidate with 6.8 per cent, the agrarian candidate with 2.4 per cent and the centre-left candidate with 2.2 per cent. The remaining candidates got less than 0.5 per cent each. (The turnout was 64.5 per cent.)

As expected, Duda did especially well in Poland’s in villages and small towns, and in Poland’s more socially conservative east and south. Trzaskowski came first in big cities such as Warsaw, Wrocław and Gdańsk, which tend to be more liberal, and in three out of sixteen regions, all in the country’s north-west.

Trzaskowski also did much better among Poles voting abroad, who tend to vote more liberal (with some exceptions, such as the United States, where Duda came first). Trzaskowski got 48 per cent of the foreign vote overall, compared to Duda’s 21 per cent. The breakdown varied between countries; among Poles in Britain, Trzaskowski came first with 48 per cent, with Duda third (behind Hołownia) with under 16 per cent.

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According to the exit poll, there was no major difference in support for Duda and Trzaskowski between men and women. The latter came first among voters with a university degree. Duda did better relative to Trzaskowski in older age groups.

With no candidate securing over 50 per cent of the vote, the election will be settled in a runoff on 12 July. The outcome will set the tone in Poland and its relations with the outside world for the foreseeable future.

On paper, the Polish presidency is largely ceremonial, with the power to veto laws. Yet it has wider symbolic implications. In Poland, this election is the latest instalment of the struggle between the ruling right-wing Law and Justice party (which Duda hails from, but left when he was elected president in 2015) and its liberal and centrist opponents.

During his election campaign, Duda sought to mobilise right-leaning voters with homophobic rhetoric, including calling the promotion of LGBT rights an “ideology” more destructive than communism, and with a last-minute visit to the White House to see Donald Trump on 24 June, four days before the election.

This contrasts with the vision of society advocated by Trzaskowski, who hails from the centrist Civic Platform (PO), Donald Tusk’s former party. He is liberal by his party’s standards: as mayor, he signed a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT+) declaration, which included proposals including a shelter in Warsaw, anti-discrimination measures and more sex education in schools.

Speaking at his election event in Warsaw after the exit polls were released, Trzaskowski said that in the second round, Poles will not only face a choice between him and Duda. “It will be an election between an open Poland, and a Poland that seeks an enemy and a president who constantly tries to divide,” he said from the stage.

To win in the runoff, both Duda and Trzaskowski will need to attract voters from the other candidates who did not make it into the second round – but won around 5 million votes between them. Although the sum of votes cast for Trzaskowski and the other opposition candidates exceeds the number cast for Duda, it is impossible to predict how all the other candidates’ supporters will vote in the second round – or whether they will vote at all.

For Trzaskowski, the largest potential reserve of additional votes would come from people who voted for independent candidate Hołownia, who came a clear third in the first round. Hołownia ran on a platform of “modern solidarity”, “green development” and democracy with citizens’ involvement.

He also took on the role of a newcomer in politics; someone from outside the PiS-PO “duopoly” in Polish politics, which has dominated the country for over a decade. As a result, he has not endorsed either candidate – at least so far. After the first round, he wrote on social media that his “voters will know what to do themselves, because they are free Polish citizens”; he will only ask them to go and vote.

Another key group will be people who voted for the nationalist far-right candidate, Krzysztof Bosak, who came fourth, with slightly under 7 per cent. According to the exit poll, he got 23 per cent of the under-30 vote and did more than twice as well among men as women overall.

Bosak has kept his distance from both Trzaskowski and Duda, against whom he presented himself as a right-wing alternative. Rather than endorse either of them, his grouping is encouraging its supporters to “vote in accordance with their conscience and reason”.

Both Trzaskowski and Duda have already started courting Bosak’s voters. “I am convinced that Krzysztof Bosak's voters are definitely closer to me than to Rafał Trzaskowski,” said Duda, speaking on Polish radio the morning after the first round. Meanwhile, Trzaskowski has appealed to them by highlighting how, despite their differences, he and Bosak have a similar attitude to the economy, which contrasts with PiS’s statism.

With the stakes so high, the next two weeks will show how far Duda and Trzaskowski are willing to bend to win more votes and claim victory.

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