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WARSAW — In the second round of Poland’s presidential election, incumbent Andrzej Duda narrowly defeated Warsaw Mayor Rafał Trzaskowski. Though he carried just six provinces in eastern Poland, compared to Trzaskowski’s ten, and lost in medium and large cities, Duda’s support in villages and small towns was just enough to push him over the finish line.
As this outcome suggests, Poland’s political divisions increasingly reflect class divisions. The part of the country that went for Duda is decidedly poorer, with a per capita GDP of just 67% of the national average; the average unemployment rate in the provinces Duda won is 7–9%, compared to a nationwide rate of 5.4%.
Clearly, the social transfers launched by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party and signed by Duda have proved effective electorally. The main opposition party, Civic Platform (PO), cannot shake its reputation as having “done nothing for ordinary people.” Voters still remember that it was PO that raised the retirement age in 2012, and that Trzaskowski served in the PO government of former Prime Minister Donald Tusk.
Duda benefited openly from the massive machinery of the state, which PiS wielded in a style more characteristic of Eastern despotisms than Western democracies. The government directly controls two of the four largest television channels, which attacked the opposition daily. Among the smears hurled at Trzaskowski was that he would “sexualize children” (owing to his affiliations with Poland’s LGBT movement) and slash social benefits in order to pay Jews reparations for World War II.
According to Thomas Boserup, an independent election observer of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, public television’s election coverage was not impartial: “We were worried by instances of intolerant rhetoric of a homophobic, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic nature, particularly among the president’s campaign and the public television.”
Just before the election, the main public broadcaster, TVP, once again overseen by Jacek “Bull Terrier” Kurski, a PiS politician who is notorious for his norm-breaking cynicism, received a special cash infusion of two billion złoty ($500 million). According to Press-Service Monitoring Mediów, between June 3 and June 16, 97% of the TVP flagship news program’s coverage of Duda was positive, whereas 87% of its coverage of Trzaskowski was negative.
Given how polarized the Polish electorate is, it was clear early on that voter mobilization would prove decisive in the election. That is why PiS adopted aggressive “red meat” rhetoric. The point was not to win over opposition voters (considered impossible), but to mobilize the base. Poland’s Council of Ministers has not met since June 12, because ministers, under the leadership of Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, have been touring the country handing out checks in PiS strongholds. Overall turnout reached a record high of 68.2%.
PiS was determined to win this election, in particular, because a loss would have put an end to party leader Jarosław Kaczyński’s illiberal counter-revolution. The office of president does not have significant power in Poland’s parliamentary system; but it does have the legitimacy that comes with being a nationally elected position. More to the point, the president wields a legislative veto and appoints judges, ambassadors, and other important officials. Had Trzaskowski prevailed, he could have stopped PiS’s legislative agenda in its tracks, and posed a new threat to Kaczyński’s political camp, which includes many who, in the event of defeat, would likely face criminal liability for their behavior in office.
Poland now faces three more years of a PiS monopoly on power. The next parliamentary election will not be held until 2023. In the meantime, PiS will attempt to co-opt or marginalize all of the country’s remaining independent institutions. Kaczyński and his cronies will do everything they can to ensure that future elections are mere formalities, turning Poland into a Potemkin democracy.
Time is on PiS’s side, particularly with respect to the Supreme Court, where even more judges will reach retirement age and be replaced by PiS loyalists. Though there could be some resistance from judges in the lower courts, the vast majority of whom have behaved honorably and independently so far, most will likely be restrained by the threat of removal.
PiS also will try to strangle local governments that are under opposition control, by shifting costs from the central budget, cutting off funds, revoking various competencies, and so forth. And then there is what remains of independent, private media. Kaczyński claimed during the presidential election campaign that, “There was a very brutal and very far-reaching intervention on the part of the press, let’s not hide that it’s German, but in the future we must prevent such situations.” He is now declaring that, “Polish authorities cannot allow part of the national nervous system to be in foreign hands (…) we must make sure that this nervous system in Poland is Polish.”Sign up for our weekly newsletter, PS on Sunday
The European Union may decide to make payment of EU “cohesion funds” conditional on the PiS government’s respect for the rule of law. Germany and the Netherlands, in particular, seem to have lost patience with Poland, and may finally stop implicitly financing authoritarianism there and in Hungary. But they have accepted the status quo in Poland for four years, so it is hard to believe that things will suddenly change, especially when one considers all of the larger problems the EU is dealing with.
In any case, the 10,018,263 liberal Poles who lost to 10,440,648 million PiS supporters will continue to organize and fight. Trzaskowski remains the mayor of Warsaw and just announced plans to transform the PO into a broader social movement that will capitalize on the unprecedented enthusiasm his supporters demonstrated in this campaign.
Trzaskowski may have lost, but he proved that PiS can be defeated. The question is whether the opposition will have any more opportunities to do so. In any case, Poland is returning to its favorite political system: the fight for freedom.
Sławomir 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.
This article was first published at Project Syndicate.