A young challenger’s win kindles worries that Poland could return to its erratic days under the Law and Justice party
MANY dismissed it as a fluke when, in the first round of Poland’s presidential electionstwo weeks ago, the heavily favoured incumbent, Bronisław Komorowski, finished second to Andrzej Duda of the conservative Law and Justice party (PiS).
On Sunday Mr Duda (pictured) showed that the prior result was no accident, defeating Mr Komorowski in the runoff election by a margin that late-night exit polls put at 52% to 48%.
Some of the credit goes to Mr Duda, an energetic young candidate who started the race as a relatively unknown member of the European Parliament. Yet Mr Duda’s win also reflects widespread disillusionment with Mr Komorowski and the ruling centre-right Civic Platform party (PO) that backed him.
It could presage a PiS win in parliamentary elections this autumn. After eight years of centrist government, Poland appears to be swinging back to the right.
At Mr Duda’s election event in Warsaw, supporters impatient for the results after a two-week interval found themselves waiting an extra 90 minutes when a death at a polling station delayed the presentation of the exit polls.
By the time they were announced, the temperature was tropical, and the sweaty crowd jeered at a projection screen showing Mr Komorowski conceding defeat. Mr Duda was more circumspect, thanking his rival politely and promising an “open presidency” that would welcome a wide range of initiatives.
Mr Komorowki’s backers put much of the blame for defeat on his lacklustre campaign. After Paweł Kukiz, a former rock star, won 20% of the vote in the first round with a campaign demanding that Poland switch its electoral system from party lists to single-member districts, Mr Komorowski tried to court his supporters by promising a referendum on the issue.
The hurried move only dented Mr Komorowski’s credibility. (Meanwhile, the referendum has been approved by the Senate and will take place in September.) Mr Komorowski’s efforts to portray Mr Duda as a dangerous radical proved ineffective, as the PiS candidate kept his rhetoric carefully moderate.
“Each of us is a bit rational and a bit radical, but we need to look for shared values,” Mr Duda said on the campaign trail last week.
The danger is that Mr Duda’s election could herald the return of the erratic and confrontational Poland of PiS’s previous term in power from 2005-2007, which was characterised by domestic and international paranoia, particularly towards Germany.
The cover of one news magazine showed Mr Duda peeling off a rubber mask to reveal the face of Jarosław Kaczyński, the veteran leader of PiS, who is a more divisive right-wing figure. PiS is trying to avoid that association; at Mr Duda’s election event, Mr Kaczyński was nowhere to be seen.
One area where many fear a PiS president could cause damage is Poland’s reputation in the European Union. That has risen dramatically over the past decade, as evidenced bythe appointment of Donald Tusk, the former prime minister, as president of the European Council last autumn.
Last week five former Polish foreign ministers, including Radosław Sikorski, who held the position under Mr Tusk, published an open letter in support of Mr Komorowski.
“Rowdiness, complexes and conflicts lead to alienation,” they wrote, referring to the PiS’s term in power. (Anna Fotyga, who was foreign minister under the PiS in 2006-2007, did not sign.)
Mr Duda has tried to defray such anxieties, but he must also play to the more nationalist voices in the PiS. In a televised debate last week, Mr Duda said it was important to build good neighbourly relations, but added that
“we cannot assume that we are a category B [second-rate] country.”
Mr Duda may in fact be a new breed of PiS politician. His relatively moderate language and efforts to cultivate cross-party support are very different from the xenophobic nationalism practised by the previous PiS-backed president, the late Lech Kaczyński (Jarosław’s twin brother).
He certainly has political talent: at 7am on the morning after his victory, while most victors might have been resting on their laurels, Mr Duda was at Warsaw’s central metro station handing out cups of coffee to passersby.
In any case, the Polish presidency is non-partisan, meaning Mr Duda will have no official links to PiS. And while the president has veto powers, he is mainly a ceremonial head of state.
The greater risks lie with the PiS in parliament. The party is strongly sceptical of the EU, and many of its voters are fond of religious nationalism and conspiracy theories. Mr Duda’s victory is a painful reminder to the PO-led government that its time is running out.
Ewa Kopacz, the prime minister, will try to secure a third term for her party in parliamentary elections this autumn, but she has not built the kind of support Mr Tusk enjoyed. Polls already give PiS a narrow lead, and Mr Duda’s success is expected to widen it.
“We could feel the juices draining out of us after so many years of electoral losses,” said one jubilant PiS politician after it became clear Mr Duda was ahead.
Poland’s liberals dread the possibility that the PiS may be getting its old juices back.