Poland’s presidential election is a stark contest between an open and closed society

A win for latecomer Rafał Trzaskowski, the Mayor of Warsaw, would give liberals hope.

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It has been suggested that the struggle between open and closed visions of society, which has raged in the politics of countries around the world in recent years, might be sidelined by the Covid-19 outbreak. Anyone who thinks that should watch Poland’s presidential election on 28 June, which will concern that open-versus-closed contest more than anything else  including the pandemic.

Since 2015, Poland has been governed by the Law and Justice (PiS) party. Commonly described as “right-wing”, the party is socially conservative, economically statist and broadly suspicious of Brussels (though not opposed to Poland’s EU membership). Andrzej Duda, the PiS-backed president, is running for another five-year term on Sunday, after the original election in May was delayed because of the coronavirus. He faces five main rivals, who range politically from the nationalist far-right to the centre-left, all of them in their 30s or 40s, and all of them men.

An unexpected challenger has emerged in the form of Warsaw’s liberal mayor Rafał Trzaskowski, who joined the race in May, when his party’s previous candidate pulled out after support for her crumbled. A former Europe minister, Trzaskowski hails from the centrist Civic Platform (PO), which governed from 2007 to 2015 (for most of that time under Donald Tusk, who went on to become European Council president). Like Duda, he was born in 1972, has a background in academia and served as a member of the European Parliament.

Trzaskowski 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. For that, he was attacked by PiS politicians, who presented it as a threat to the Polish family.

This  rather than the pandemic or the economy  has become the focus of the campaign, as Duda has tried to mobilise socially conservative voters with homophobic rhetoric and appeals to traditional concepts of the family. (According to a poll conducted last year, 65 per cent of Poles are against gay marriage and 73 per cent against adoption by same-sex couples.) “My parents’ generation for forty years fought to eliminate communist ideology from schools, so it couldn’t be forced on children,” said Duda at a rally in the south-western town of Brzeg on 13 June: “They didn’t fight for this so that a new ideology would appear that is even more destructive”.

Four days before the election, Duda met with Donald Trump at the White House, the first foreign leader to do so since the start of the pandemic. The unexpected visit was supposed to underscore Poland’s close relationship with the United States, though the meeting itself was underwhelming and produced no concrete decisions. The visit went ahead despite criticism in both countries. Eliot L. Engel, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the House of Representatives, called it “highly inappropriate”, citing the upcoming election, the global pandemic and Duda’s recent homophobic rhetoric. Trump was unfazed: “I do believe he has an election coming up, and I do believe he will be successful,” he said at a news conference with Duda in the Rose Garden at the White House on 24 June.

In opinion polls, Duda remains in the lead, but the gap between him and Trzaskowski has narrowed. One recent poll put support for Duda at 41.5 per cent, followed by Trzaskowski with 28.3 per cent and the other candidates under 10 per cent. If neither of them of them gets over 50 per cent on Sunday, there will be a runoff on 12 July. Polls put them neck and neck. One factor will be for whom the other candidates’ supporters vote  or whether they vote at all.

The outcome will affect the legislative process in Poland and in particular PiS’s ability to push laws through parliament, where it has a majority in the lower house but the opposition controls the upper house. Although Poland’s president holds a mainly ceremonial position, he has the power to veto laws. If Trzaskowski wins, he could use this to block further changes to the judiciary by PiS, for instance. A Trzaskowski victory would weaken PiS’s grip over the country and give its opponents that elusive political quality  hope. Yet his party, PO, and the wider opposition probably face some soul-searching before they can return to government in the future.

More broadly, the president will shape the tone within Poland and in its relations with other countries, from the language used to talk about gay rights or immigration, to contacts with foreign leaders. These differences in emphasis were visible this week: while Duda was in Washington to see Trump, Trzaskowski released a video of other European mayors, from Helsinki to Madrid, via Sadiq Khan in London, wishing him good luck. Europe is still battling Covid-19 and its aftermath. But it is also watching closely as a more long-term clash of values plays out in Poland this weekend.

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