Poland's elections: What you need to know
Malgosia Krakowska in Warsaw
Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, left. President of Poland, Andrzej Duda, right. /AP/Czarek Sokolowski.

Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, left. President of Poland, Andrzej Duda, right. /AP/Czarek Sokolowski.

Poland goes to the polls on 28 June in what is expected to be a close presidential election. The vote, which was delayed from 10 May, will be one of the most significant to take place worldwide since the coronavirus outbreak. 


Who are the incumbents? 

Should incumbent Andrzej Duda, ally of the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party, retain power, then Poland is expected to push forward with its contentious judicial reforms, which the European Union (EU) claim are undermining democracy. 

Duda, a lawyer by trade, came to power in 2015. During his term he has repeatedly, along with other Eastern European leaders, clashed with EU leaders, rejecting their proposal for migrant quotas.

Duda has enjoyed mostly high approval ratings throughout his tenure and is framed by the PiS party as the defender of the traditional family values. His continuing in the role is seen as crucial to PiS's conservative agenda. Under Polish law, the president can veto legislation. Should an opponent take power, PiS does not have enough seats in the legislature to overturn it.


Who are the challengers? 

There is a stark difference between Duda and his closest rival, Warsaw mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, the candidate of the centrist Civic Platform (PO). While Duda has attacked the LGBT community, Trzaskowski became the first mayor of Poland's capital to attend a pride event. 

Should Trzaskowski win, Poland would be expected to challenge much of PiS's legislation and turn Poland more toward Brussels, where the founder of the PO, Donald Tusk, only recently stepped down as president of the European Council.


What are the polls suggesting? 

According to a recent poll by KANTAR, the incumbent Andrzej Duda would attain around 40 percent of vote, his main political rival Trzaskowski would get 27 percent of support, and former TV celebrity Szymon Holownia, who is running as an independent, would receive 13 percent.

While polls show Duda as the most popular candidate, his lead has been narrowing and he needs to win more than 50 percent to avoid a second round on 12 July. Some polls now show Trzaskowski winning the run-off.


What are the key issues? 

Security and Defence 

On Wednesday, Duda became the first foreign leader to visit U.S. President Donald Trump since the coronavirus outbreak. 

The incumbent and his aides worked months behind the scenes to set up a meeting with Trump – timing it to boost Duda's re-election. In the White House, Duda had at least two aims – the deployment of U.S. forces to Poland and business deals on the construction of modern military infrastructure. 

"We're going to be reducing our forces in Germany. Some will be coming home and some will be going to other places, but Poland would be one of those other places," Trump said at the joint news conference with Duda.

While the deal is yet to be finalized, it could involve the U.S. offering 2,000 soldiers to Poland, 1,000 more than initially agreed in June 2019. Those additional troops would include the U.S. Army V Corps from Kentucky and F-16s from Germany, according to Reuters. 

Pushing for the increased presence of U.S. troops in Poland could be a vote winner for Duda. A recent poll by RMF FM radio and the Dziennik Gazeta Prawna daily newspaper shows 60 percent support for the U.S. military presence in the country.

But for Duda, his Washington trip didn't go entirely to plan. During the press conference, Trump failed to commit to the deployment, stating that the move was only probable and reiterating that a number of the 52,000 US troops based in Germany would be coming home. 

Duda warned that the removal of any of the troops would be "very detrimental to European security."

Experts wondered if Duda's Washington trip might backfire on the incumbent. Artur Wroblewski, a political scientist at the Lazarski University in Warsaw, said that Polish voters expected much more than White House courting. 

"Although President Andrzej Duda is still enjoying solid national support, these days his electorate expects more than empty declarations."

Duda, left, has pursued closer relations with the U.S. under Donald Trump. /AP/Evan Vucci

Duda, left, has pursued closer relations with the U.S. under Donald Trump. /AP/Evan Vucci

Russia relations

While the troop redeployment remains unresolved, Wroblewski believes that the U.S. has embraced Polish concerns with its eastern neighbor, Russia, by announcing yet more sanctions on the Russian-German gas pipeline Nord Stream 2. 

In an interview with the German Handelsblatt newspaper, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, said that Berlin "must stop feeding the beast, while simultaneously not paying enough for NATO," in reference to the country's dealings with Russia.  

"Trump's visible criticism of the Nord Stream 2 project has resonated an enormous success for the Law and Justice party, and Duda, while undermining Russia's reputation in Europe," states Wroblewski.

Trzaskowski, who has largely steered clear of foreign policy, has warned against a transfer of US nuclear weapons to Poland or investing in nuclear energy, preferring that Poland boosts its reliance on renewables and decarbonize. The mayor has also prioritized boosting Poland's position in the EU, backing stronger ties with France and Germany, rather than the U.S. 


Ideological battle 

In Polish politics, ideology means a lot, leading to populist mavericks appearing across the political spectrum. 

As the election nears, the mainstream candidates will be hoping to gain support from sections of the electorate previously backing those candidates on the political fringes, candidates like right-wing radical Krzysztof Bosak (Confederation Liberty and Independence) or social-democrat Robert Biedron (The Left). 

"This is a battle between small-town mentalities, 'Europeanness' and globalism, it remains a dominant element of the political struggle for both sides: conservative and liberal," said Rafal Jung, a Lodz-based political scientist.

The battle is especially visible at political rallies. 

Trzaskowski has used his rallies to try to gain liberal support by focusing on social issues, including financial assistance to couples who cannot afford infertility treatment, while he has confronted Duda over judicial reforms, and warned of the dangers of "PolExit," the idea that Poland could leave the EU. 

In turn, Duda, speaking to supporters in Brzeg, attacked the LGBT community, stating they have a "gay ideology." Adding that previous generations didn't fight against the post-World War II Polish People's Republic "so that a new ideology would appear that is even more destructive."

Jung notes: "It is not surprising that they do this. In politics, election results largely depend on the number of hands shaken during the election rallies."

Candidates such as Stanislaw Zoltek from Congress of the New Right, who count on less than three percent support in polls, while not considered serious political option, still pose a threat to the mainstream. 

"The reason for these so-called 'exotic candidates' is to destabilize political campaigning in the first round by stealing votes from other candidates with similar political agendas," according to Jung.

Norbert Czarnek, chief of staff of the Stanislaw Zoltek Election Committee, told CTGN Europe that its campaigning is taking place on social networks only, which previous elections have shown to be an effective way of drumming up support.


Trzaskowski's supporters are generally pro-EU. /AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski

Trzaskowski's supporters are generally pro-EU. /AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski


Poland and its past 

Jung further explains that anti-totalitarian sentiment still dominates the political narrative in Poland, a country which post-World War II was dominated by the Soviet Union up until 1989.  

The rise of right-wing populist parties, exemplified by the success of PiS, has been fueled by these narratives alongside Poles' adherence to traditional Catholic values.

Despite the electoral success of these parties, analysts warn that a populist approach to sensitive social issues can prove ultimately counterproductive. 

Maciej Onasz, a political researcher at Lodz University, points out that "populism is tricky. At first sight, candidates may appear as rational individuals but their populist agendas, which are an example of a black-or-white fallacy, can work like a trap."

If Duda fails to win it may be because he couldn't balance the support of PiS's supporters and the desires of the rest of the electorate. "Consolidating a party's agenda and courting public support are often contradictory," Onasz says.

Source(s): Reuters