Foreign Policy

Will Poland’s Presidential Race Deal a Blow to Nationalist Conservatives?

WARSAW, Poland—Last October, Poland’s President Andrzej Duda and Rafal Trzaskowski, the mayor of Warsaw, took part in the unveiling ceremony of the memorial of one of the fathers of Polish independence. Standing almost shoulder to shoulder in chilly weather, they paid tribute to a national hero. But later the same day, a striking thing occurred: Duda disappeared from the photos released by the mayor, while Trzaskowski was visibly missing in the photos issued by the president’s office.

Eight months later, Duda and Trzaskowski, backed by the two arch-enemies of Polish politics—the ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party and more liberal Civic Platform (PO) are most likely to emerge from this weekend’s first-round presidential election and proceed to the second round to compete for a post that, although largely ceremonial, allows the holder of the office to veto laws. Originally, the election was scheduled for May 10, but it was postponed to June 28 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last fall’s photo-editing was, it now seems, the first salvo in what has turned out to be a brutal election campaign. In just a few weeks, Trzaskowski appears to have gained ground on a popular incumbent. Duda reacted to his falling poll numbers by declaring LGBT “ideology” worse than Soviet-era communist indoctrination and PO worse than the coronavirus.

Trzaskowski, a PO candidate who in Warsaw unveiled a series of commitments to uphold LGBT rights, seemingly personifies these alleged evils, even though he has now avoided discussing LGBT topics and cut himself off from some of PO’s most controversial decisions.

According to those who know the president, his anti-LGBT turn is new. “I didn’t know this side of the president,” Jolanta Turczynowicz-Kieryllo, Duda’s former campaign manager who worked with him briefly in February and March, admitted. For her, his harsh language is “an ineffective remedy for dipping polls,” a strategy “imposed on the president by PiS,” whose members dominate Duda’s current staff.

But, although Duda and Trzaskowski have sought throughout the campaign to showcase their stark differences, they are in fact not as totally opposed as their hometowns: Duda’s Krakow and Trzaskowski’s Warsaw—the two eternal rival cities, Poland’s former and current capitals.

Both born in 1972 to intellectual families, they first tasted politics in the late 1980s, as the implosion of global communism was rapidly gathering speed. As teenagers, they both volunteered in the 1989 campaign of the Solidarity movement candidates, who were getting ready to trounce communists in the first partly free legislative elections.

Years later, after obtaining doctoral degrees in administrative law and political science, respectively, Duda and Trzaskowski even ascended a similar political ladder, which included posts of deputy ministers, and members of both the Polish parliament and the European Parliament.

Neither man was their party’s first choice for presidential nominee. In 2015, Duda was picked by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the heavy-handed leader of the PiS, who himself was much too controversial and divisive to run. And Trzaskowski in mid-May quietly replaced Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska, a PO deputy head of the Sejm, the lower house of Poland’s parliament. After an uninspiring campaign and many gaffes, Kidawa-Blonska’s support has dipped dramatically to a mere 4 percent.

The current rivalry between the PiS and PO backup candidates mirrors a long, destructive battle sparked by both political and personal resentments between the two leading conservative parties—the nationalist PiS and more economically liberal PO—both with roots in the anti-communist Solidarity movement. For the past 15 years, they have taken turns in power or serving as the main opposition force.

What over the years has become Poland’s key political conflict reflects the country’s historical divisions and a contest of economic and cultural interests. The PO party has mostly targeted the wealthier and more economically developed cities, promoting itself as pro-European force linked with economic neoliberalism and the rule of law to appeal to richer, liberal urban elites.

Meanwhile, Poland’s strongly Catholic and poorer countryside, notably in Poland’s east, has become a pillar for PiS rule. The party has successfully married the Catholic Church, in which some leaders have openly backed PiS, with flagship social programs. Although costly, they became immensely popular and helped PiS to offer itself as the protector of ordinary families. PiS has also mastered a more top-down form of rule personified by Kaczynski, the party’s leader, who is an ordinary member of parliament but is widely believed to be the mastermind behind everything currently taking place in Poland.

Unsurprisingly, Duda, with the help of public media outlets turned into hard-line propaganda mouthpieces, built an image of a president close to people’s hearts and a guardian of PiS social programs. “He’s been a frequent visitor in small cities and villages, usually bypassed by presidents,” said Piotr Trudnowski, the head of the Krakow-based Jagiellonian Club, a conservative think tank. “He was able to recognize and give a credit to a less wealthy, more traditionally oriented part of the country, which politicians do not see often from Warsaw.”

Trzaskowski, meanwhile, has cultivated the image of the consummate European. A diplomat who knew Trzaskowski when he was deputy foreign minister confirmed that the Warsaw mayor has an expert knowledge of the European Union and a reputation for professionalism among those who worked with him. Some perceived him as narcissistic, however, given that he reportedly liked to show off his knowledge of five foreign languages. “His professional distance sometimes came off as lack of emotional intelligence,” the diplomat said.

The vicious Polish campaign is not merely the result of clashes between internationalist and nationalist worldviews or between austerity and redistributive economic policies; it has become an emotional battle characterized at times by extreme hostility. That escalation is deeply rooted in a genuine hatred between Kaczynski and Donald Tusk, PO’s co-founder and later long-term prime minister and European Council president.

Kaczynski has long accused Tusk of being indirectly responsible for the 2010 Smolensk air crash that killed Lech Kaczynski, Jaroslaw’s twin brother and Poland’s then-president, along with 95 other people. Despite landing jobs in the EU, Tusk remains a mentor to many in PO, including Trzaskowski, who briefly served as minister of administration and digitization in his government from 2013 to 2014.

This hostility has spilled over into Polish society at large, often dividing families. “The task of people on one side is to find reasons to praise their leader and attack the opposite leader, whatever one has done,” Jan Rokita, one of PO’s founding fathers, who now supports Duda over Trzaskowski due to Duda’s social conservatism, told me. “On the other hand, tribal divisions became a universal trend that has affected politics in the entire Western world. They destroy public debate but effectively mobilize voters. People are genuinely concerned and involved.”

In many ways, Trzaskowski is now who Duda was five years ago: a youthful enigma challenging a strong incumbent while promising to unite the nation—and he is proving to be a surprisingly effective campaigner, despite the fact he was chosen for lack of a better candidate. He has also become the great hope for transforming the electoral misfortunes of his party. It worked with Duda; after all, his stunning victory in May 2015 opened the door for PiS to win an overall majority in the legislative election five months later—the very first PiS parliamentary triumph after eight years of PO ruling in the country.

According to Pawel Kowal, a former deputy foreign minister in Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s government and now a PO member of the Sejm, Trzaskowski has patiently waited a long time for his chance. “He certainly showed an appetite,” Kowal said. “But, he was careful enough not to express it very much. Now, I see different Trzaskowski: determined and pragmatic. He is being formed into a mature politician.”

Duda has come a long way from the days when he was an energetic, yet relatively unknown, member of the European Parliament selected by Kaczynski to attract more centrist voters. But he has never fulfilled the hopes of those who thought he, as a young and a fresh face with no burdens, would end the devastating war between PiS and PO. On the contrary, with a chaotic team around him and still lacking influence within the party, he cemented his image as the PiS rubber stamp, who signs almost everything that PiS-dominated parliament sends his way, including controversial judiciary bills, which provoked clashes with the EU over the rule of law.

As part of PiS, which is much more centered around its leader than PO, Duda has constantly been reminded he’s just one of many cogs in Kaczynski’s machine, even if he occasionally vetoed PiS laws, including some that would have cemented the party’s power over local governments and the judiciary—though in the latter case he proposed an alternative law of his own that further increased his and the government’s power over the courts. “The key of this presidency is that he genuinely shares many views with Kaczynski,” said Arkadiusz Mularczyk, a member of the ruling coalition and Duda’s friend. “I really don’t see room for major conflicts.”

In Warsaw, the presidential palace is located only a 15-minute walk away from City Hall. Traveling between the two buildings is much easier than bridging the gap between supporters of the president and the mayor—especially the PiS hard-liners who see Trzaskowski as a devilish phantom influenced by gays, Jews, and George Soros—an image spread by state-run media. But sometimes even his recent opponents look at him favorably.

“I haven’t decided yet”, said Turczynowicz-Kieryllo, Duda’s former campaign manager, when asked if she would vote for Trzaskowski. “But, I admit, I like his vision of a president who builds alliances, not walls.”

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