Surprise election loss for Polish president spells trouble for governing party

Andrzej Duda takes the Polish presidency. EPA/JacekTurczyk

Andrzej Duda, who represents the conservative Law and Justice party, has been elected as Poland’s president in a surprise victory against incumbent Bronisław Komorowski.

Komorowski, who has governed since 2010, never regained momentum in his campaign after coming second to Duda in the first round of voting on May 10.

Duda’s success is a shift to the socially conservative right and reveals the changing political climate of Poland. The Polish president has limited executive power – that rests with the prime minister – but this victory is nevertheless significant as the general election approaches.

Duda was keen to signal that he would pursue a similar presidential style to the late Lech Kaczyński, who died in a plane crash alongside dozens of top Polish officials in 2010. This struck a chord among conservative voters. Kaczyński’s death was an enormous shock for the country and he was lauded as a political hero, after a rather controversial presidency.

Presidential elections in Poland are held every five years. The president is directly elected by citizens and requires the absolute majority of the votes to be elected. Duda won 51.55% of the vote on a 55.34% turnout in this second round, benefiting from the support from younger voters (59.9% of those who voted for him were aged between 18 and 29).

In the run up to the vote, almost 60% of Poles expressed a negative attitude about the future of the country. Duda campaigned on the promise of change and his success marks a turn towards a more conservative right.

While the role of president is less powerful than the prime minister, this is a wake up call. The incumbent prime minister, Ewa Kopacz, and her Civic Platform party now face pressure in the run up to the general election in the autumn.

A tale of two Polands

Although this election result has surprised many, the pattern of voting across the country’s regions reflects a longstanding division. There has long been talk of two Polands.

Komorowski on the way out. EPA/Pawel Supernak

On one side, liberal Poland supports entrepreneurial freedom and individual liberties. It is generally represented in large urban centres and the western regions. On the other is a Poland characterised by social solidarity, which seeks to defend Polish national values. Support for this side largely exists in the eastern, poorer regions of the country.

Duda’s Law and Justice party and Komorowski’s Civic Platform have established themselves as the political manifestation of this embedded conflict in Poland. Duda received strong support from the rural population and farmers. His party looks set to campaign for the autumn election with promises to lower the retirement age, lower taxes and implement generous social spending. Law and Justice represents social conservative attitudes and also backs a more nationalist teaching of Polish history.

East or west?

The incumbent Civic Platform has sought to build closer ties with Berlin and carve out a more central place for Poland within the EU. But the party has been losing ground ever since former prime minister, Donald Tusk, left to take office as president of the European Council in 2014. It now seems to be suffering from the fatigue of governing for two terms in a row.

Although the Polish public continues to support the EU, the protest vote is associated with discontent among young people. Since the 1990s, there has been a push to cut ties with Poland’s communist past and protect national values. Duda may have benefited from this stance at the polling booths; Law and Justice is known for its soft euroscepticism – while it is not against the EU in principle, it may oppose certain policies if they are not in Poland’s national interest.

It is not yet clear if Duda’s election will help his party win in the general election but it will probably be a tight race. Civic Platform will need to quickly learn from this defeat if it wants to hold on to power in the general election.

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