INCUMBENT PRESIDENTS will often go to great lengths to be re-elected. In the case of Andrzej Duda, Poland’s president, who hails from the ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party (he formally left it after being elected president in 2015), this includes engaging in homophobic language, launching attacks on independent media and accusing Germany of meddling in the election. It worked: he won the election run-off on July 12th, narrowly beating Rafal Trzaskowski, Warsaw’s liberal mayor, by roughly 51.1% to 48.9%, with all but a tiny number of votes counted by the afternoon of July 13th. On paper, the presidency is a largely ceremonial role, with little executive power though the potentially important right to veto laws. In practice, Mr Duda’s win means the further entrenchment of PiS’s brand of socially conservative populism in Poland.
Mr Duda and Mr Trzaskowski are of the same generation. Both were born in 1972, both worked in academia and both served as members of the European Parliament. Yet their politics have placed them on opposite sides of the epic struggle between PiS and the centrist opposition led by the Civic Platform party, which has dominated Polish politics since the mid-2000s. Mr Trzaskowski joined the race at the last minute, after the original election in May was postponed because of the coronavirus. The election went to a run-off after no candidate received more than 50% of the vote in the first round on June 28th.
Mr Duda rallied socially conservative voters by championing the traditional family. LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) rights are an “ideology” worse than communism, he told supporters on June 13th. This was a direct attack on Mr Trzaskowski, who as mayor signed a declaration in favour of LGBT rights in Warsaw. (However, in conservative Poland, he has been careful not to go too far; he said on the campaign that as president he would favour civil partnerships, but avoided making any commitment to legalising gay marriage.) Mr Duda’s election campaign was strongly, and unfairly, supported by TVP, the public television broadcaster, which PiS took control of shortly after coming to power in 2015. “Trzaskowski will fulfil Jewish demands?” said the caption on its main evening news programme on July 9th. Mr Trzaskowski responded by putting openness at the centre of his campaign, calling for a Poland “where an open hand wins against a clenched fist”.
The turnout in the election was 68%, one of the highest in Poland since the fall of communism in 1989. Mr Trzaskowski came a strong first in the country’s western regions, which are more industrialised and closely integrated with other EU countries. Mr Duda won in the more rural, socially conservative east (which borders Ukraine and Belarus) and south. Mr Trzaskowski performed extremely well among young people, winning a majority of the under-30 vote, according to an exit poll published after voting closed on election night. In the over-60 age group the results were reversed, a majority backing Mr Duda.
With the results now in, the opposition plans to file complaints about how the vote was conducted. The behaviour of the state broadcaster has already been strongly criticised. Yet Mr Duda’s victory seems unlikely to be overturned. Liberals fear that the tone of his campaign is a sign of what is to come. On election night, after the exit poll was released, he told journalists that he “does not regret any words” he said during his campaign. With the president re-elected, and no more elections scheduled until 2022, the danger is that PiS will be able to focus on its illiberal agenda. If the party were wiser, though, it might reflect on the narrowness of its victory and think about tacking back to the centre.