What next for Poland?

For Liberals – and, indeed, anyone opposed to right-wing authoritarianism – the results of Sunday’s Polish presidential election will have come as a huge disappointment.

It’s a loss for Poles who oppose the direction in which their country has been heading under PiS dominance. It’s a loss for progressives. It’s a loss for Europe. It’s also a loss for humanity generally, as the rise of unenlightened populism continues.

For many, Andrzej Duda’s victory feels like the end. So many hopes had been pinned on an unlikely win for Warsaw mayor Rafał Trzaskowski, not least because this election represented the final hurdle to the PiS (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, Law and Justice Party) cementing its grip on power for another three years. As Agnieszka Graff, professor of cultural studies at the University of Warsaw, told The Guardian, “this was an election in which we would either allow or prevent the final stage of dismantling democracy of Poland and, right now, it really feels like it’s game over.”

Such an attitude is entirely understandable. If you’re either Jewish or LGBT and living in Poland right now, you have every reason to be fearful. During the campaign, incumbent Duda shamelessly used anti-Semitic and homophobic dog-whistle tactics. He accused his opponent of selling out to Jewish interests. He also referred to LGBT+ people as an "ideology" that is "worse than communism", signing a "family charter" of election pledges to prevent same-sex couples from marrying or adopting children. Duda also pledged to ban all LGBT+ education in schools, part of a PiS plan to extend “LGBT ideology-free zones” across the entire country.

Former Prime Minister and de facto leader of Poland, PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński, sees LGBT+ people as "a threat to Polish identity, to our nation." PiS is basically an anti-Russian version of Hungary’s Fidesz, and its divisive and populist attacks on minorities, the judiciary and media independence mirrors Viktor Orban’s party. As toxic as PiS’s campaign was in this election, one of the most chilling moments occurred after the votes had been counted – when an exuberant PiS MP declared the time has come for 're-Polonisation' of the media. I can only imagine this means the ruling party assuming control of what independent media remains.  

PiS has been described as “conservative” in the Western news media, but to do so is to fail to do justice to the real nature of the party’s totalitarian instincts. Andrzej Duda's victory is actually a failure to respect human rights and the rule of law in Poland. The progressives in despair at the outcome are of course right on one count – there is no immediate hope of improving the situation for already marginalised communities, especially those viciously scapegoated by Duda and the PiS. Further erosion of human rights is now longer a possibility, but widely expected. Poland is, undeniably, hurtling towards ultra-authoritarianism. It’s a truly depressing picture.

But wait!

The ruling party called this election precisely because it wanted to confirm its grip on power, knowing that a victory would mean there would be no opportunity for meaningful opposition for another three years. It also believed it would win easily, and that the election would be nothing short of a formality. On 15th May, the day Trzaskowski was confirmed as a candidate, opinion polls showed Duda with well over 50% of the vote, and with his nearest challenger on 17%. A much wider gulf was suggested in the polls previous to that, with Duda polling around the 65% mark at times.

PiS managed to achieve its objective – but only just. It genuinely did not foresee any opposition campaign gaining significant traction as the election rolled on. It underestimated Trzaskowski and his appeal. While some have understandably found faults in the opposition strategy (and there were several) it’s also true that Trzaskowski was a good candidate, that Duda’s popular standing is not what the PiS thought it was, that Trzaskowski came within a whisker (48.97% - 51.03%) of success and managed in a few weeks to become the embodiment of the hopes of millions. This happened in spite of the elections being unfair and giving opposition little time to organise itself, in contrast to Duda who had methodically been travelling around villages and rural areas over several months to boost his support base.

The PiS will have been rattled by this result; relieved to cross the finish line, but rattled nonetheless. This result has shown that the PiS can be beaten. It was actually a remarkable outcome for a last-minute candidate.

There was even the surreal sight of Kinga Duda, the president’s daughter, apparently apologising for her father’s campaign strategy. She said: "Regardless of what we believe in, what colour skin we have, our views, which candidate we support or who we love, we're all equal and deserve respect. No one deserves to be an object of hate". I’m not convinced of the sincerity of Kinga Duda, but I read into her statement an acknowledgement that this campaign has been unnecessarily divisive.

It’s quite clear that the election hasn’t settled anything: hurts not only remain but have been intensified, and years of division and political conflict await. What matters now is how opposition parties respond. In the last few years it’s fair to say that they have not been sufficiently united in their approaches, and have failed to hold PiS to account effectively.  But what cannot be allowed to happen is for this close result to become the high point of resistance to the PiS.

The simplified electoral map (above) shows a heavily divided Poland. The picture’s a bit more complicated than an East-West split, but the data will be familiar. Duda won the majority of votes from over-50s (and was particular well ahead with the over-65s) but it was Trzaskowski who won the majority support in all the categories for those aged under 50. Duda won big in rural areas and small villages, where the influence of the Catholic Church is strongest, but it was Trzaskowski who emerged the victor in towns and cities, taking over 70% of the vote in Gdansk and 68% in Warsaw. The contrast between the political outlook of Duda/PiS and Poland’s main cities couldn’t be more stark.

Among Poles in the UK, who have a vote in their elections at home, support for Trzaskowski stood at 79%.

Trzaskowski’s loss is a huge blow – there can be no escaping that. Of course I’d have preferred a president who happily signs a declaration of support for LGBT+ rights as opposed to one who demonises LGBT+ people. But it’s also true that people are looking towards a new Poland, a new leader, an alternative to PiS nationalism and authoritarianism, and a more progressive way of doing politics. I also think it's worth pointing out that the PiS is now going to have to adjust to the realities of governing a heavily divided Poland with heightened political tensions.

What is the way forward? As someone with very limited Polish connections and who is only an observer of Polish politics, it’s difficult for me to state precisely how this appetite for change can be harnessed and used to forge more cogent opposition to the PiS’s destructive and divisive agenda. It's also clear there are no easy answers: no doubt the PiS will seek to use this result to its advantage, claiming a mandate the outcome doesn’t really give and adopting aggressive and ever more Fidesz-like tactics. However. I also sense an opportunity here for opposition parties if they can find a way of channelling the support, hopes and aspirations of Trzaskowski’s voters into a forceful and effective resistance.

Following the announcement of the result, Rafał Trzaskowski said: "I promise and guarantee that I will do everything to work on sewing Poland together [so] that we would learn to talk to each other again. There is a huge chance for this. This dream, which has been rebuilt in the last two months, will motivate us to work even harder."

I am sure he is right. I certainly agree that there is an opportunity if only opposition parties can grasp it. The only thing I might suggest is that there is a need to work more effectively, rather than simply work harder. That's going to require a renewed sense of purpose and unity, and a determination to aggressively resist the PiS's authoritarianism and demonisation of minorities.


Andrew said…
This from Anne Applebaum is worth reading: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/07/polands-rulers-manufactured-a-rainbow-plague/614113/?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=share