Polish President Andrzej Duda. Picture: AFP/JANEK SKARZYNSKI
Polish President Andrzej Duda. Picture: AFP/JANEK SKARZYNSKI

Warsaw — When Polish President Andrzej Duda saw his popularity dip in opinion polls recently, he turned to some familiar tactics. He attacked gay people, praised Catholic family values and cozied up to Donald Trump. 

Duda’s Poland is no stranger to divisive politics over the past five years. But as he seeks a second term in an election on Sunday, the question is whether the us-against-them narrative of the governing Law & Justice party will yield another victory and raise the alarm again for Europe.

The vote, the first of two potential rounds, is a critical moment for a nation that until five years ago was hailed as a model of transformation from communism to a thriving democracy. By clashing with the EU over everything from LGBT rights to the independence of courts and control of the media, Poland turned into a problem child.

Now the country will decide whether the leadership will get carte blanche to complete its project by re-electing a handpicked president whose job has been to endorse its power grab. The risk for an EU grappling with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout is that Poland goes the way of Hungary, already seen by many in Brussels as a lost cause.

Functioning democracy

US think-tank Freedom House said that given Poland’s trajectory, it may not even be considered a functioning democracy in years to come. “If this continues for another five years it’s very likely that Poland will find itself outside the democracy category,” said Zselyke Csaky, a Freedom House research director.

The vote is Duda’s to lose. Polls show he still has a healthy lead, albeit without the critical mass to avoid a second run-off round on July 12.

The 48-year-old president is backed by 42% of the electorate, based on the average of the past five surveys. The leading opposition candidate Rafal Trzaskowski, the mayor of Warsaw, is on 28%. But should neither candidate win at least half of the votes on Sunday, polling for a second round suggests the result would be too close to call.

Indeed, after the vote was delayed from May because of Covid-19, the campaign has been tough for the incumbent, who was picked by Law & Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski to run for the presidency in 2015.  

Trzaskowski, also 48, has tapped into growing discontent over Poland’s seemingly perpetual clash with the EU and now the prospect of a deep recession with his “We’ve had enough!” rallying cry.

Duda fought back by blaming the LGBT community for threatening Polish families and championing the government’s social security handouts. This week, he visited the White House for talks with Trump. The US president has praised Warsaw’s spending on military equipment and the drive to chart its own “Poland first” path within the EU.

While the meeting failed to produce a sweeping defence agreement long-advocated by Poland, public television hailed the visit as a resounding success. Yet that may make little difference, according to Andrzej Rychard, a sociology professor at the Polish Academy of Sciences.

“Duda’s visit can mobilise his core electorate, which would vote for him even if he didn’t go,” said Rychard. “The key to Polish elections is the ability to add several percentage points of support, and I don’t think this visit can help that.”

Eastern Europe is proving to be a testing ground for how the pandemic has weighed on sentiment towards leaders. Serbia held elections last weekend, with voters handing President Aleksandar Vucic’s party an emphatic victory amid a boycott by opposition groups. Croatia heads to the polls in July.

In Poland, a Duda loss would jeopardise Law & Justice’s ability to push through some legislation. The party has enough seats in parliament to pass laws, though not enough to override a presidential veto. 

The party built power by attacking “corrupt elites” and promising a fairer, safer country for ordinary citizens after decades of fast-paced changes after communism. Aided by a tightly controlled media, the government is painting Duda as the sole defender against foreign influences and the protector of new social benefits, including childcare and pension handouts.

But the Covid crisis has given the opposition a chance to disrupt the government’s narrative, especially as frustration rises amid allegations of sleaze and top officials not following their own lockdown rules. Kaczynski also had to abandon plans for an untested mail-only election in May, when polls showed Duda winning in the first round.

According to Freedom House, which runs an index gauging the strength of democracies around the globe, Poland deteriorated for a fourth year in 2019 and is well below its neighbours in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and the Baltic counties. 

The view that things are not going in the right direction is starting to resonate among Polish voters as the pandemic raises expectations for government relief and exposes the limits of the party’s media machine.

“The masks have fallen,” said Adam Bodnar, Poland’s ombudsman for human rights. “The line dividing those in power and the rest of the society is much clearer.”