Polonia, il presidente Andrzej Duda (Getty)

Poland’s Presidential Race Reflects Europe’s East-West Ideological Divide

Last weekend, as Poles set out to elect their next president, Europe’s ideological divisions were thrown into sharp relief. In one corner, the incumbent Andrzej Duda — a man indicative of Eastern Europe’s growing conservatism — standing on a platform of nationalistic populism. In the other, Rafal Trzaskowski, a Europhile liberal and defender of minority rights.

Who Won Poland’s Election, Duda or Trzaskowski?

With the first-round votes counted, neither one had reached the requisite 50% (Duda took just under 44% of the vote, while Trzaskowski recorded just over 30%), triggering a runoff ballot to be held on July 12.

The decision ahead of Poles reflects a far wider crisis of unity afflicting Europe: the rise of nationalist governments who have generated controversy over their approach to press freedom and the rule of law in the East, versus the enduring liberal traditions of the West.

Though more moderate than, say, Serbia’s president Aleksandar Vucic or Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Duda has much in common with these right-wing leaders.

Taking a Look at PiS

Poland’s ruling Law & Justice Party (PiS) — with which he is aligned — is wedded to a program of state transformation, including new laws that limit media freedoms and punish judges who are considered to have inaccurately maligned the government or ruled by activist sympathies. As president, Duda has waved through these measures, chipping away at Poland’s democratic credentials.

Yet, the 48-year-old still clearly enjoys significant support, even though he failed to meet the 50% threshold for a first-round triumph.

Duda’s Popularity is in Decline

Duda’s popularity is in decline, however. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, he looked set for a stonking victory. But the government’s lackluster performance on the pandemic and recent allegations of corruption have seen his support base ebb away.

The emergence of Trzaskowski — Warsaw’s cosmopolitan mayor — as a viable candidate has also stung the incumbent. Perturbed at the country’s trajectory under PiS’s brand of nationalistic conservatism, many Poles have turned to Trzaskowski in the hope that he will be a check and balance against the PiS’s right-wing policies. As president, the Warsaw man would have an effective veto on government legislation.

Gay Rights Becomes a Focal Point

Startled by Trzaskowski’s striking rise in the polls, Duda’s campaign shifted gears in the weeks running up to the first-round vote, forcing the conversation onto social issues. The rights of LGBT people has been a particularly fierce battleground.

Seeking support from Poland’s rural, Catholic voter base which remains staunchly against same-sex marriage — Duda has played the family values card, promising to protect the nation against the proliferation of “LGBT ideology.”

A strong supporter of gay rights, Trzaskowski has offered Poles a very different vision with regard to equality. Elements of the media — which various mainstream and left-leaning analysts say is largely under the thumb of the administration — have sought to turn this against the moderate candidate. Sieci, a pro-PiS weekly magazine, recently published a front-cover depicting a hooded Trzaskowski wearing a rainbow armband, with the caption: “the extremist candidate”.

What Happens Next?

This attempted character assassination appears not to have worked, however. By taking 30% of the vote, Trzaskowski has secured himself a strong position for the second-round runoff. Indeed, if electoral polling is to be trusted, he — not Duda — is the odds-on favorite to win the deciding ballot next month.

That would send a strong signal that Eastern Europe still holds dear the core democratic values upon which the continent is built.