rafał trzaskowski, Source: Platforma Obywatelska RP on Flickr

Mayors’ fight for Polish democracy

Mayors’ fight for Polish democracy

It is local politicians who have risen to the challenge of contesting the Polish presidential elections in a bid to safeguard the country’s faltering democracy

It has been a tough few months for politicians across Europe. With COVID-19 spreading like wildfire, many long-term plans had to be put on the backburner in favour of addressing the ongoing crisis. One of the most significant losses incurred during the pandemic, however, has been democracy itself. With countries and governments being forced to impose lockdowns and enter states of emergency, the very foundations of our societies had to take a step back.

Some EU member states attempted to carry out their democratic processes as if nothing had changed – but that only led to further complications. In France, following Prime Minister Edouard Phillipe’s insistence on continuing with the first round of local elections in March, the government was forced to postpone the 2nd round for months.

In Austria and Germany, different regions also had to adapt their procedures in order to cope with the unravelling pandemic. The damage, however, to the fabric of democracy and to the legitimacy of those elected during the pandemic will haunt them at the very least until the end of their respective mandates.

Yet there is one country, and more specifically, one party, that really tried to push its luck during the height of the crisis. That country is Poland and the party, of course, is the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) that tried, and failed, to organize a mail-only presidential election when infection rates were still soaring and the end of the pandemic and the related restrictions were nowhere in sight.

The Curious Case of the Polish Election

Under normal circumstances, Poland’s presidential elections were supposed to be held in May. The event was scheduled far in advance and had there been no complications, everything would have gone without a hitch.

The incumbent Andrzej Duda of Law and Justice, held a stupefying lead over every other challenger and the party itself had just recently reaffirmed its strong position in the Polish countryside.  The stars were aligning in PiS’s favour and all would be well.

Yet the circumstances turned out not so normal. And the meticulously planned – and completely assured victory, was thrown into doubt. The pandemic changed every calculation made by Jarosław Kaczyński – the head of Law and Justice and Poland’s de-facto leader.

The government did everything in its power to keep the elections on schedule but the internal pressure coming both from Poland’ civil society and from its European partners and EU institutions, proved far too much to bear. And thus, following a decision to effectively scrap and postpone the elections, opposition parties for the first time found themselves with a fighting chance.

Pandemic arithmetic

By just taking a brief look at the polls prior to COVID-19 we can easily surmise why the PiS was so eager to keep the elections on schedule. The lead that Duda boasted over his opponents was insurmountable, considering Poland’s economy and the condition of its opposition parties.

But following the outbreak, calculations immediately changed. With a deep recession now pretty much assured and with cases rising, the fear of a presidential challenge drove the PiS’s leadership to push for the election to be held on its previously scheduled date even harder. And that, of course, blew up in their faces with the decision to carry out a postal ballot-only election in these unprecedented circumstances widely seen not only as a bad idea but also as a dictatorial-esque sweeping into power. 

In the end, the government relented and postponed the election – which allowed one final key piece to fall into place that would give its rivals the opportunity to mobilize – namely a shakeup in the largest opposition party’s electoral list.

Polish cities at the heart

Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s largest opposition party, must be counting their blessings for the opportunity they were given. Their annihilation in the presidential elections, had they taken place in May, was all but assured. But the worsening economic situation in the country and the government’s botched attempt at keeping the election on schedule gave them a new lease on life.

And they acted fast and with precision, picking an entirely new candidate as their choice for Poland’s presidency – namely the mayor of Warsaw, Rafał Trzaskowski. The shakeup accomplished two main things – it removed a major stumbling block in front of the Civic Platform while also simultaneously striking Law and Justice right where they are electorally weakest – namely the country’s larger, richer and more densely populated urban areas.

The last elections in Poland in 2019 taught all of us a valuable lesson – namely that the governing Law and Justice party (and ones similar to it – like Hungary’s Fidesz) is deeply unpopular in the country’s cities, compared to its countryside rural bastions. The glaring weakness was left unremedied by PiS officials, who instead of embarking on a policy of rapprochement with its urban electorate, opted to clamp down on local officials and their decision-making powers. By choosing the mayor of Warsaw as its presidential candidate, Civic Platform hopes to mobilize all those who the government has sidelined and left without a proper voice.

Law and Justice, meanwhile, has also been eager to not disappoint.  With Trzaskowski quickly gaining in the polls after his nomination, the party returned to its tried and tested strategy of lambasting and antagonizing Poland’s LGBT community – and much like last time, it has instead allowed many other candidates to make use of the divisive rhetoric to make their own gains. Such is the case of Robert Biedron, the openly gay former mayor of Slupsk and incumbent MEP who is also running for president.

And while Biedron himself does not stand a chance of getting into the 2nd round of elections, polling in the single digits, his supporters, and those of other progressive candidates, are bound to join the Trzaskowski bandwagon when the time comes – maybe not because they like him, in particular, but because “at least he’s not Duda”.

Chaos breeds opportunity

A series of missteps, combined with unforeseen circumstances, managed to completely change how the Polish elections will play out. The Civic Platform’s choice of a candidate has proven to be pretty much perfect given the situation that the governing Law and Justice have created for themselves over the last few years they have been in power.

With Trzaskowski seizing the moment, riding atop a wave of discontent stemming from Poland’s cities, he has given all those yearning for change, a glimmer of hope. Should he successfully navigate the treacherous waters of devising a functional electoral coalition between progressive and centrist voters, without simultaneously alienating the country’s conservative and rural population, Warsaw’s mayor might just be able to secure the coveted 50% of the vote in the 2nd round.



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