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Presidential Elections in Poland: Something Old, Something New

The victory of Andrzej Duda, the nationalist, right-wing Law and Justice party’s candidate, came as a shock to many. Yet, in fact, his success over President Bronisław Komorowski, a center-right conservative, supported by the ruling party, Civic Platform, should not have been a surprise. After all, Duda also won the first round (albeit by a margin of less than one percent), and while Komorowski ran a lackluster campaign, defending the accomplishments of the recent past, Duda ran a much more dynamic one, running as the candidate of change in a country with much discontent.

What was more surprising, however, was the presidential candidate, Paweł Kukiz who, in the first round, came in third place with over twenty per cent votes, particularly from younger voters. He is a well-known rock musician who began his career in the 1980s as an anti-Communist punk rocker, and has recently become something of a populist tribune. He has been captivating people frustrated with the government’s lack of interest in citizens who have not benefited from the post-1989 transition, who are unable to find stable, decently paying jobs, and who are often forced to leave Poland in search for better employment. Kukiz’s ignorance (e.g. concerning constructing the state budget, or existing strict anti-abortion laws, which Kukiz wanted to loosen, while thinking he was offering a more conservative stance) and sincerity, in pointing out the ills of people in power, matched with his miracle cure for all evil—establishing one-member constituencies — was enough to make him the unexpected winner in terms of political and media attention.

Only after the first round of the elections did Komorowski notice that despite his high ratings as president, after eight years of Civic Platform’s insipid “hot water in the tap” political vision, something was changing on the Polish political scene. Still, it turned out it was already too late to motivate citizens to vote for him in the second round, even though many commentators saw him as a winner of the two debates with Duda.

His campaign was languid and half-hearted, as if it was enough to win by claiming “consent and security,” (the campaign’s motto) and praise the country’s steady economic progress. Komorowski failed to notice he was telling this to people who felt they did not have a chance to reap benefits from the progress he spoke of. Rather, his arguments were treated as arrogant bragging done by a beneficiary of the system that had excluded many others. Komorowski did not deserve all the hateful comments he received, but he did little to change the general mood among the voters. The first lady’s, Anna Komorowska’s radio comment that emigration should be treated not only as a personal drama but also as an opportunity, did not go well either.

This does not mean that Andrzej Duda was that much better. He is, after all, the candidate of Law and Justice, the party whose two-year period of parliamentary rule (2005 -2007) was filled with nationalist, ultra-Catholic, and xenophobic rhetoric, with witch hunts for anyone considered the party’s enemy, concluding with corruption scandals, which eventually brought the more centrist Civic Platform to power. But the youngest voters do not remember this; they were ten years old back then. They are unhappy with the current government, which has been unable to create a job market offering much more than the lowest-paying jobs, but which extended the number of years needed to reach retirement, and which at the same time renationalized people’s individual retirement savings. Duda knew this, hence promising pretty much everything to everyone, successfully convincing voters that he is neither from the same group of arrogant beneficiaries such as Komorowski, nor a puppet of Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Law and Justice party, known for installing figureheads in leading positions, and exercising power from the backseat himself.

The president elect, a former MP and member of the European Parliament, hardly known until he became the official presidential candidate, succeeded in showing himself as someone new, untarnished by politics, and close to “ordinary” people.

He spent weeks travelling all over Poland in his “DudaBus,” serving coffee to workers in the morning and listening to people during his visits in small towns. Conversely, even though Komorowski’s strategy was similar, he failed to persuade voters that he understood, or even genuinely cared about their concerns. A deaf representative of success inaccessible to people whose votes he wanted, Komorowski did not manage to show he had much to offer, even though Duda offered little more than empty promises.

Yet, people showed they wanted something new, something for a better future. Komorowski largely limited his arguments to trying to remind voters that having Law and Justice back in power would be destructive for the state, and listing accomplishments of the recent past that could appeal to the “haves.” In this context, Duda could easily focus on the government’s shortcomings unmentioned by Komorowski, which are now shaping the less-than-rosy perspectives of the numerous “have-nots.” Indeed, they voted for change. The voters grew tired of people in power who they feel have failed them, and instead chose to cast their ballot in favor of someone who looked like an outsider — even if it meant electing a candidate from the main opposition party, with an ultra-Catholic, nationalist, xenophobic, and warlike rhetoric.

At the same time, the political left has been steadily drowning for almost a decade, barely getting five per cent of votes. For the most part, the scene is made up of post-Communist and old center-left politicians, in addition to intellectuals who are all engaged in internal petty conflicts, which sabotage the formation of any real political movement. Young left-wing activists, such as the Green Party, are barely noticeable at all, pretty much reducing their visibility to Women’s Day and pro-gay rights Freedom Parade demonstrations.

However, a new type of leftist party, Together (Razem) has promise. Established less than two weeks ago,  there is a chance it may fill this huge gap. Founded by people in their twenties and thirties who claim that they “stand on the side of the majority” (a catchy motto for the frustrated voters and nonvoters), rather than old-style parties with fixed hierarchies and structures, Together resembles the Spanish Podemos or German Pirate Party: with fresh, unknown faces, no clear leadership, and strongly leftist claims concerning workers’ rights, taxes for the rich, as well as broader access to health care, culture, and education. A first glimpse of this style of leader-less organization could be noticed three years ago during massive anti-ACTA protests all over Poland. Young people came out on the streets to protest against a EU law that could potentially lead to censorship and violate the freedom of speech. The protesters won; the bill was dropped by Poland, and later by the European Parliament, and now a significant new political movement may be emerging.

Duda won because he convinced voters he was not a part of the system of power that ignored them and which they grew to hate. Whether he is indeed independent from Kaczyński, the Law and Justice party’s leader, will be seen in the next couple of months. Kaczyński has been already announced by the party as its future prime minister candidate (a position with far more power than that of the president) in the parliamentary elections scheduled in September. Unless he soon shows his old nationalistic, xenophobic face, there is a big chance Law and Justice will win the coming elections by playing the same tune as Duda did: the outsider promising change.

But at the same time, there will be the genuine outsider cum rock musician, Kukiz, who will surely try to get as many seats as possible, and if previous parliamentary elections in Poland are of any indication, his party may gain around fifteen percent of votes. And then there is Together, a complete unknown, but such marvels have been game changers on the Polish political scene many times in the past.

One thing is certain: the voters chose “something else.” Those people who remember the Law and Justice-led government are not sure if this is what the people will get. Nevertheless, after over a decade of Civic Platform vs. Law and Justice deadlock, Polish politics is getting some fresh air. In four months people will choose whether it will come to be a full right-wing U-turn, much in line with what is happening in Hungary, France, or the United Kingdom, or whether it will mark an opening to new voices of people who have been neglected for a very long time.

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Helena Chmielewska-Szlajfer

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