Poland’s new hawkish president could be shape of things to come from Warsaw

Poland’s president Andrzej Duda taking supreme command over Polish armed forces on August 6. EPA

Where next for Poland? That is the big question following the swearing in of Andrzej Duda for a five-year term as the new president.

The 43-year-old lawyer’s shock victory in May’s presidential election has shaken up Polish politics. It means that for the first time since 2010, Poland’s president is from a different party to the prime minister. Duda represents the right-wing Law and Justice party, while prime minister Ewa Kopacz is from the centrist Civic Platform.

Duda’s victory prompted speculation about whether there would be a significant shift in Polish international relations. Up to a point, is the short answer. Real executive power lies with the prime minister, but the Polish president is not simply a ceremonial figure. According to the constitution, the president has informal oversight and a coordinating role over foreign policy.

The president ratifies international agreements – so he or she can block treaties negotiated by the government; and, as the country’s highest representative, can – for example – participate in meetings of the EU Council. Duda will also exercise powerful influence through his foreign visits and high-profile speeches – beginning with his calls on August 6 for a greater NATO presence in eastern Europe.

This all means that the current government is going to have to live with a powerful figure with a very different agenda – at least until the parliamentary election on October 25. After that point, Duda’s views could well be the dominant Polish position.

International interests

The current government takes what it argues is a constructive approach towards the main EU powers, especially Germany. It claims that this has effectively promoted the country’s international interests – in contrast to the Law and Justice government that it succeeded in 2007, led by Jarosław Kaczyński. Civic Platform presents the appointment last autumn of the then Polish prime minister Donald Tusk as president of the EU Council as the crowning achievement of this strategy.

Law and Justice supports Polish EU membership, but is anti-federalist and at times verges on eurosceptic. It opposes further European integration and defends Polish sovereignty, especially in relation to morality and culture – where it rejects what it sees as an EU liberal-left consensus. The party argues that Poland needs to better advance its national interests within the EU and its critique of German-led closer integration has intensified since the eurozone crisis.

During the presidential campaign, Duda called for the country to recalibrate its relationship with Germany. He also wanted to revisit the decision-making split between Brussels and member states to strengthen national sovereignty in areas like climate policy, claiming EU policies were damaging Polish industry.

The current government has toned down its earlier enthusiasm for adopting the euro, yet it remains committed to fulfilling the criteria for eurozone accession as quickly as possible. Law and Justice opposes adoption until Poland’s economy is more closely aligned with the rest of the EU and then not without a referendum. Since the eurozone crisis, it has increasingly given the impression that it couldn’t envisage any point in the foreseeable future where this could be in Polish interests.

At least some of this positioning is just rhetoric, however. A Law and Justice administration would be more assertive about an independent foreign policy and sound more eurosceptic, but radical steps against EU integration are unlikely. When last in government in 2005-07, it often tended to be integrationist in practice. Neither has the party ever opposed Polish adoption of the euro in principle. In reality, the two Polish parties’ European battles have been less about the substance of integration and more about who is more competent to represent Polish interests abroad.

Russian policy

Both parties support the idea of Poland at the forefront of efforts to maintain and extend EU sanctions against Russia and increase NATO presence in central Europe. Yet Law and Justice claims the current government has been constrained by its unwillingness to move too far beyond the EU consensus and counter-balance the over-conciliatory instincts of some major European powers, particularly Germany.

As Duda indicated at his swearing-in speech, Law and Justice wants to use the 2016 NATO Warsaw summit to secure a greater military presence in the country, preferably including permanently stationed US forces or military bases. They want defensive weaponry to be located on NATO’s eastern flank, something opposed by Germany as too provocative towards Russia. During his election campaign, Duda also called for a stronger Polish presence in international negotiations over Ukraine and Russia and mooted Polish military aid to Ukraine through NATO.

Former president Lech Kaczyński. Wikimedia

Duda identifies with the so-called “Jagiellonian policy” of by the late Lech Kaczyński, the president 2005-10, which envisages Poland as regional leader and a broad military and political coalition of east-central European states to counter Russian expansionism. Duda is likely to try and breathe new life into this project, though this won’t be easy given that some states including the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia have questioned the rationale even behind existing EU sanctions.

The way ahead

If Civic Platform remains in government after the October election, Poland faces up to four years of political cohabitation. Law and Justice is currently 10% ahead in the polls but is unlikely to secure an outright majority, and has no obvious coalition partners among the current parliamentary parties.

Despite the politics and rhetoric behind many of the two parties’ divisions on foreign policy, Poland’s most recent period of cohabitation between the two parties, in 2007-10 during the Lech Kaczyński presidency, was certainly not pretty. It saw an ongoing power struggle, including embarrassing battles over the EU. Notably the president delayed Polish ratification of the Lisbon treaty for 18 months in 2008-09.

The alternative is that Duda does find himself working with a government with whom he shares a common programme. If that happens, Poland will be more assertive in pushing forward its interests at the international level, independent of the major EU powers. We will see which of these two futures comes to pass after October 25. As things stand, Poland’s approach to the world has just become considerably less predictable.