By Slawomir Sierakowski/Warsaw
Poland’s democratic opposition is approaching its last chance to stop Law and Justice (PiS) party leader Jaros?aw Kaczynski from consolidating his illiberal populist regime. His puppet, Polish President Andrzej Duda, is up for re-election, and Kaczyski is so keen to clinch a victory that he initially resisted postponing the May 10 election, despite the obvious risk to public health amid the pandemic.
The resulting public confusion would have guaranteed Duda victory in the first round. But the election did not take place on May 10, owing to a revolt by Agreement, a small party whose leader, Jaros?aw Gowin, had hitherto been loyal to Kaczynski. PiS has since been forced to postpone the election, but Duda still has a good – albeit worsening – chance of securing a second term, regardless of the date.
Ma?gorzata Kidawa-B?o?ska, the previous candidate from the largest opposition party, Civic Platform (PO), had a strong start in February, but polled increasingly poorly over the course of the pandemic. Owing to PO’s indecisiveness on whether to boycott the May 10 vote, her support fell from about 30% to as low as 2-3%, and she has since dropped out of the contest.
There is now a potential split forming between the opposition’s left and a new center-right grouping around W?adys?aw Kosiniak-Kamysz, the popular leader of the Polish People’s Party (PSL), who is reshaping a once-obsolete outfit into a modern Christian Democratic force. Kosiniak-Kamysz could be joined by Szymon Ho?ownia, an independent candidate with liberal-Catholic views, a somewhat populist style, and as a former television personality, name recognition. A master of social media and grassroots fundraising, Ho?ownia has attracted experts from across the political spectrum to his staff.
Having benefited from PO’s flailing response to the pandemic and election crisis, Kosiniak-Kamysz and Ho?ownia are weighing whether to launch a new political grouping (potentially together with Gowin’s party) to lead the opposition. Lacking a worthy successor to its previous leader Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister and European Council president, PO is not popular even among its own voters, many of whom see the party as corrupt and dominated by elite interests.
Still, PO’s plunge into the abyss has been halted for now. Kidawa-B?o?ska has been replaced by Warsaw Mayor Rafa? Trzaskowski, one of PO’s leading – and most leftist – politicians. While that trait may have served him well in the 2018 Warsaw mayoral election, it will likely hurt him in the provinces.
PiS is dead set on holding the election as soon as possible; it is now scheduled for June 28. Trzaskowski was given just five days to collect 100,000 signatures and register his committee, and his campaign will last a mere two weeks. But PiS’s efforts could backfire. Forcing Trzaskowski to collect signatures in such a short time (though by no means an impossible feat) feeds a kind of David versus Goliath narrative. Poles are famous for producing victims – and then praising them.
And, in fact, as a new candidate, Trzaskowski has risen dramatically in the polls. He comes across fresh and strong, like a marathon runner who joined the race in the 20th mile. Activists collect signatures on the streets enthusiastically, almost feverishly. If the trend continues, Trzaskowski could ride it all the way to victory. Duda, meanwhile, is fading fast, such that it is already clear that the election won’t be decided in the first round.
Duda is still leading, with a little more than 40% support (in line with support for PiS), but Trzaskowski has already reached 26-28%, with Ho?ownia polling at around 11-12% and Kosiniak-Kamysz at around 6%. With around 10% support, Krzysztof Bosak of the far-right Konfederacja party is also doing very well, whereas Robert Biedro? of the leftist Lewica party has slipped to around 2% after losing support to Trzaskowski.
Trzaskowski’s immediate strategy is to eliminate competition within the opposition, by playing on the broader PiS/anti-PiS divide. He has unveiled a plan to eliminate the public news channel (TVP Info), and to ban editorialising on all major public channels, so that they can never again be used for government propaganda, as PiS has done with abandon.
But an “anti-PiS” platform may not suffice. While Trzaskowski has big cities in the bag, he will also have to win over provincial, conservative, Catholic Poland, which has benefited from PiS social programmes and remains hostile to elites, especially those who are supported by the LGBT community. Like his two great predecessors, Tusk and Aleksander Kwa?niewski, he will have to prove that he can be a “folk” politician. Even that will not win him support in deeply rural areas; but he may be able to secure the support of midsize towns (20,000-100,000 inhabitants). To that end, he is visiting no less than five places per day.
A Trzaskowski victory would be a major breakthrough. Duda is so willing to sign every piece of legislation that PiS puts on his desk that he is now widely referred to as merely “a pen.” Lacking a three-fifths parliamentary majority, PiS would be unable to overturn an opposition president’s veto. The cracks in the coalition would deepen.
On the other hand, if the opposition loses, it also will have lost the last chance to check PiS. Parliamentary elections will not be held for another three years, which is more than enough time for PiS to consolidate the authoritarian regime it has been building. PO, the strongest party, will lose legitimacy. The disintegration of the Polish opposition will accelerate, and the apathy of civil society will deepen.
Kaczynski’s subjugation of the judiciary is already well underway. Duda has selected Ma?gorzata Manowska, a former PiS deputy minister, to serve as First President of the Supreme Court, the institution that will certify the election. If Duda loses, will Kaczynski resort to using the court to annul the result? At this point, the possibility cannot be ruled out. – Project Syndicate
* Slawomir Sierakowski, founder of the Krytyka Polityczna movement, is Director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw and Senior Fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations.
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