Why the Polish presidential election matters

Poland is heading for a rousing vote this coming Sunday. In the run-off of its presidential election, polls are placing the incumbent Andrzej Duda and the mayor of Warsaw Rafał Trzaskowski neck and neck, possibly within one percentage point of each other.

Andrzej Duda, backed by the Law and Justice Party (PiS), which has been in government since 2015, benefited from a mild rally ‘round the flag effect in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, but that seems to have dissipated by now. He also enjoyed unlimited airtime on public media at a time when it was effectively impossible for his challengers to campaign.

Election posters of the Mayor of Warsaw and the presidential candidate of the main Polish opposition party Civic Platform (PO) Rafal Trzaskowski and Polish President Andrzej Duda hang on a fence in Leszno, Poland July 6, 2020. Piotr Skornicki/Agencja Gazeta via REUTERS

However, the fact that Trzaskowski has a solid chance at
defeating Duda suggests that Poland has not moved as far down the path of
authoritarianism as Hungary has since Viktor Orbán’s arrival in power in 2010. The
election is taking place in a country that is strongly polarized,
especially between its wealthy, liberal urban centers and the rest of the
country. With no asylum-seekers in sight, Duda’s campaign has focused on the
defense of family values against “LGBT ideology” — an emphasis that seems a bit
off given that Trzaskowski is the deputy leader of the center-right Civic
Platform, which is part of the European People’s Party together with most of
the Christian democratic parties of Europe.

Two issues are at stake in the election. Firstly, will PiS be able to push its agenda until the parliamentary election in 2023, not hindered by checks and balances or by judicial review? The latter has already been weakened early on in PiS’ first term, as the government defanged the Constitutional Tribunal and moved aggressively to “reform” the country’s courts and dismiss large numbers of judges.

As for the former, PiS already suffered a setback by losing
its majority in the Senate last year. Yet, the Senate veto can be easily
overridden by the lower chamber of Poland’s parliament, the Sejm, and it
therefore amounts to a mechanism that can at best slow new legislation down but
not stop it. Breaking the president’s veto, which Duda has hardly ever
exercised, requires a 3/5 majority — which PiS does not have.

Secondly, the voice of presidents in Central Europe matters far beyond what their formal position within the constitutional systems betrays. From Lech Wałęsa in Poland and Václav Havel in the Czech Republic in the 1990s to Zuzana Čaputová in Slovakia at the present time, heads of state have left significant footprints on their respective countries without necessarily having direct access to levers of power. Whether or not Trzaskowski belongs in the same category, his election would dramatically restrict PiS’ ability to shape the national conversation. And the fact that PiS has to worry about such an outcome is in itself a piece of good news about the state of Polish democracy.