Until the late night last Sunday, the chances for Rafał Trzaskowski were still intact. The first exit poll after the polls closed showed an advantage for incumbent Andrzej Duda. Still, high hopes rested on some half a million registered voters living abroad.
In the end, it wasn’t enough. Hours later it became clear that Duda could secure his second term as Polish president in the closest election in post-communist Poland, with 51 percent voting for him. The turnout was 68%, the country’s second-highest since 1989. Despite several parallels between the two candidates – both are 48 years old, both were brought up in educated, urban families – it was a vote between a modern, open, pro-European Poland advocated by Trzaskowski, and a conservative, exclusive and patriotic one.
The results surprised and disappointed many voters at the same time. Trzaskowski, mayor of Warsaw and nominated by his party PO (Civil Platform) just two months before the election, managed to win 49% of the vote in the run-off ballot, coming dangerously close to the incumbent, Duda. From many perspectives, it was a remarkable achievement, considering the hate campaign the governing Law and Justice Party (PiS) and its propaganda-mouthpiece TVP flooded over the airwaves and social media in recent weeks. Among younger voters (under 49), urban and better educated voters, Trzaskowski secured a large winning margin.
Five More Years
It was not enough. Duda, who never hid his allegiance to PiS-chairman Jarosław Kaczyński, made it clear he was not running as an independent, but to fulfill the party agenda: To reshape Poland as an ultra-conservative country of “Polishness” without pluralism, with limited media freedom and no “LGBT-ideology.” Already in the run-up to the parliamentary elections of autumn 2019, PiS used gays and lesbians as the new bogeymen, whose “ideology” Duda called worse than communism.
Following the PiS’ initiative, more than 100 municipalities and provinces have declared themselves “LGBT ideology-free zones.” It is a disgraceful populist and symbolic gesture, nothing more, but with very real consequences. In July 2019, an equality march in the city of Białystok was attacked by thousands of far-right activists and hooligans, resulting in dozens of injuries and an early end to the parade. The party consciously fueled existing prejudices by declaring all gays and lesbians as “pedophiles,” “spoiling the youth” and “destroying the country.”
According to many observers, it was this homophobia that helped Duda mobilize his core electorate and that secured his victory. Mayor Trzaskowski, by contrast, had signed a 12-point-program in early 2019 to promote LGBT-rights – something Duda and PiS used to attack him at every occasion. Especially in the days prior to the election, TVP television ran attack ads about Trzaskowski, LGBT and pedophilia for hours on end. Trzaskowski, who wanted to reach out to the voters of other parties, did not entirely succeed with that strategy.
As in 2015, Duda again secured his victory by exploiting stereotypes and hatred. Then it was the Syrian refugees, who were portrayed as the ultimate danger to Poland. This year it was gays and lesbians. Many observers speak of it as the dirtiest election campaign ever.
Divided They Stand
Soon after his victory on Sunday, Duda apologized to everyone “whom he might have hurt,” only to take it back a couple of hours later. He does not intend to unite the country, which could hardly be more divided. If we do not see a complete about-face, Duda will continue to poison the political climate, while rubber-stamping the laws the PiS-controlled parliament will put before him.
Probably still this year, PiS will head for the “re-Polonisation” of private media, as the justice minister announced regarding critical German and American publications. Also a further tightening of the already ultra-strict abortion laws might be on the agenda, to satisfy the Catholic Church, which is a major power in rural Poland and advocated successfully for Duda before the election.
For the democratic opposition, however, Trzaskowski’s almost-victory could be transformed into a new wave of hope, and an actual chance of beating PiS, if the opposition is willing to learn from the lessons of this election. Most importantly, PO and other opposition parties needs to reorganize and professionalize themselves. With a bit of luck, a new narrative and a popular leading figure, there might be a real chance for the parliamentary elections in 2023 for a broad movement.
And Warsaw Mayor Rafał Trzaskowski would be a good bet for that front-runner.