The election results signal a generational change that will have long-lasting consequences.
Andrzej Duda’s success in Poland’s presidential election is a political earthquake. Not only did Duda, an inexperienced, second-rank politician from the opposition Law and Justice Party, outwit all the opinion pollsters and media who even two months ago hardly gave him a chance to make it to the second round. Duda – a conservative Eurosceptic whose party (led by the former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski) is politically close to Britain’s Tories, the Czech conservatives and Hungary’s Victor Orban - triumphed in a country which is widely known for its strong pro-European sentiments and its stunning economic performance in the last decade under the leadership of Donald Tusk, now President of the European Council. Is Poland, until now a bastion of stability and reliability in a Europe shaken by populism and popular discontent, about to defect? And how is it possible that 52 percent of Poles gave their votes to the candidate of a party that rejects the current model of the Polish republic and harshly criticises the very achievements of the last quarter-century that underpinned Poland’s reputation across Europe?
How is it possible that 52 percent of Poles gave their votes to the candidate of a party that rejects the current model of the Polish republic?
Duda’s success may signal a major political change in the country and pave the way for an electoral victory of Law and Justice in the parliamentary election in autumn 2015. If so, this would turn the tide of Polish politics and could change Poland’s policy and position in Europe. In the years 2005-2007, when Law and Justice was in power, Poland witnessed a deepening of internal conflicts, a strongly conservative turn in domestic policy and a more nationalist foreign policy. But it would be premature or, indeed, mistaken to conclude that the vote for Duda was in the first place a vote against Europe or for a major change in Poland’s foreign policy. Not surprisingly, this election was strongly focused on domestic issues – and it is legitimate to assume that it will have a long-lasting aftermath.
Those who brought about Duda’s success were (beyond the core vote of Law and Justice) mostly young people: 60 percent of voters between 19-29 years chose Duda, a 43-year-old lawyer, a higher proportion than for any other age group. Their decision is much more than just giving a chance to a new and fresh politician: it also marks the beginning of a generational change in Polish politics and the end of a 25 year post-Communist period with all its successes and flaws.
This result marks the beginning of a generational change in Polish politics and the end of a 25 year post-Communist period with all its successes and flaws.
Komorowski, one of the icons of the anti-Communist opposition in the 70s and 80s, built up his political position and appeal upon the great success of the last two and half decades of Poland’s transformation to which he admittedly contributed a lot and of which he could claim to be one of the symbols. He was certainly credible as a candidate of Poland’s “freedom and democracy”. However, he misread the sentiments of the society, was too convinced that he would be able - and that he “deserved” - to win (he was the most popular politician in Poland and as recently as in February 2015 was supported by 68 percent of Poles for re-election), and as a consequence had a disastrous campaign. He framed the contest as a fight between a “rational” (pro-European, democratic, liberal) and a “radical” (anti-system, anti-European, anti-Enlightenment) Poland: an analysis which proved to be completely out of sync with the emotions and expectations of a large number of voters. This division has, indeed, been the foundation of the main political cleavage in Poland over the last decade, between the national-conservative Law and Justice Party and the liberal Civic Platform –. But it was exactly the rejection of this disturbing political conflict (largely personal between Kaczynski and Tusk or waged on ideological battlefields) as well as the belief that it no longer reflects reality that explains the voting behaviour in this election. And most importantly, while Komorowski stood for continuity, the Poles wanted change.
In the first electoral round two weeks ago they pinned their hopes on the protest candidate Pawel Kukiz, a former rock star and a political newcomer of rather conservative views, who gathered more than 20 percent of votes (among them more than 40 percent of the youngest voters). No doubt, his result is the most important message of this presidential election as it made visible what no media or opinion poll institutes had spotted before: a huge dissatisfaction and outrage in Polish society and a strong anti-establishment feeling among the voters. Kukiz is going to form a new party and run in the parliamentary election in the Autumn 2015 –his likely success in making it into the parliament may change the balance in the Polish politics. His party would be a natural coalition partner for Law and Justice and could help it form a government (so far the Kaczynski party has been considered as unable to find a coalition partner and thus doomed to opposition). But most important are the factors that made so many people in Poland vote for a protest candidate in the first round, and transfer their sympathy in the second round to Andrzej Duda (59 percent of Kukiz’ supporters voted for Duda on Sunday).
The main motivation for people who voted for Duda was not so much to bring Law and Justice back to power but rather a yearning for a change after eight years of the rule of Civic Platform.
Against the backdrop of the last decade, it might be astonishing that the main motivation for people who voted for Duda was not so much to bring Law and Justice back to power but rather a yearning for a change after eight years of the rule of Civic Platform, the party of Tusk and Komorowski. Yet the popular anger can be easily explained. The economic transformation in the past decades brought rapid growth but not all Poles benefited from it. The unemployment rate in the young generation is above 20 percent and even those who have jobs struggle to get a decent income and proper work contracts giving them access to welfare services. The public sector, most notably the health service, is in a very poor condition – probably the main victim of the partly reckless neoliberal transformation after 1989. Also, the aspirations of the society, and again most notably young people, have been rising faster than economic growth. Komorowski and Civic Platform became in a way victims of their own success: the stunning burst of economic development produced popular expectations which can hardly continue to be met. As I argued in the ECFR Policy Brief “After Tusk: Poland in Europe”, the golden decade of the Polish transformation is over and the next ten years will be much tougher both economically and politically.
The main failure of Komorowski and his party was their inability to address these concerns and to present a vision for Poland for the next decade. Their argument, that the country needed stability and continuity and had to be defended against the “radical” right-wingers of Law and Justice, did not fly. Those tired of eight years of Civic Platform in power and its lack of energy did not shy away from voting for Kukiz and Duda who were standing for a generational change and better understood people’s concerns. And the youngest voters did not remember the Orban-style rules of Law and Justice from 2005-2007 which otherwise might have led them to think twice before taking their decision in the ballot box. The people did not vote for radicalism and anti-Europeanism but it is largely open what the results will be of the political dynamics which they set off last Sunday.
Neither Duda nor Kukiz have a programme for Poland. Duda’s electoral promises (withdrawal of pension reforms, introducing a higher retirement age, heightening of the level of tax free income) can hardly be fulfilled without a supporting government and without ruining the state’s budget and violating common sense (demographic trends make a later retirement age absolute necessary). But his victory will certainly give a boost for Law and Justice in the autumn election (indeed, the party is already leading in the polls) and be a source of internal struggles within the ruling Civic Platform, which has anyway been weakened by Tusk’s departure to Brussels. A change of government in four months is very likely.
Duda’s electoral promises can hardly be fulfilled without a supporting government and without ruining the state’s budget and violating common sense.
The president’s powers are in Poland limited but he has the right to initiate and veto legislation as well as having a say in foreign policy. Duda does not have strong views on European or foreign policy issues but promised to re-calibrate the relationship with Germany (which according to him and his party has been based upon subordination of Poland to Berlin’s interests) and put a strong focus on the relationship with the United States (heavily criticizing, for example, the recent government’s decision to sign a contract with Airbus for helicopters for the Polish army). If Law and Justice returns to power, Poland’s stance on the EU climate or migration policy will be toughened and less inclined to make compromises. The policy towards Russia and Ukraine will remain largely the same but it is hardly conceivable that Duda will be able to fulfil his goal of Poland returning to the negotiating table (“Normandy format”) as the relationship with Germany and France will certainly get more difficult.
There are still four months to go until the autumn parliamentary election, which will raise even more emotions and questions than the surprising presidential campaign of the last weeks. The outcome is open but one result is certain: a generational change is taking place in Polish politics that may upset the political landscape of the country sooner than anybody expected. It is uncertain who will in the end capitalise on the public discontent, but the waves set off by last Sunday’s earthquake are not likely to calm down soon.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.