TV Debate: President takes on all comers

President Andrzej Duda and 10 other presidential candidates took part in a debate televised by public TVP. The first round of voting in the presidential election is scheduled to take place on Sunday 28 June.

If no candidate secures more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round, a second round between the two top candidates will be held on Sunday 12 July. It is likely that there will be one or more debates scheduled in the two weeks before the second round that will pit the two top candidates against one another.

The candidates face the music

Andrzej Duda is bidding for re-election and is supported by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS). According to the latest opinion polls his main rival is the new Civic Platform (PO) candidate , Warsaw mayor Rafał Trzaskowski, who replaced the previous PO candidate Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska after the voiding of the election that was scheduled for 10 May. Other candidates include the TV celebrity Szymon Hołownia running as an independent, the leader of the Polish People’s Party (PSL) Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz, Krzysztof Bosak MP standing for the radical right “Confederation” and Robert Biedroń MP who is the standard bearer for the “Left”.

There are also five fringe candidates in the field. The most noticeable has been Paweł Tanajno who has organized entrepreneurs’ protests during one of which he managed to get himself arrested. Another entrepreneur running is brewer and former MP Marek Jakubiak. Former PiS MEP Mirosław Piotrowski is standing for the ultra-Catholic “Real Europe” movement, Stanisław Żółtek is standing for the small right wing KNP, and Waldemar Witkowski is a late entrant for a small left-wing Labour Union (UP).

All the candidates answered five questions and had a one minute summing up. This meant that during the debate that lasted 80 minutes, each candidate got to speak for six minutes. There were no opportunities for candidates to ask questions of each other.

Migration

The first question was on compulsory relocation of migrants. President Duda felt that such a scheme was wrong for both Poland and migrants. Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz said Poland should create corridors for refugees and show some solidarity. Krzysztof Bosak criticized the PiS government for increasing immigration while indulging in anti-migrant rhetoric. Szymon Hołownia differentiated between refugees and migrants and argued that Poland needs to work with Germany and France, rather than “kneeling in front of America”. Rafał Trzaskowski said that Poland should rejoin the European mainstream rather than conflicting itself with western Europe.

Religion in schools

The candidates were asked if they wanted to maintain the role of the church in teaching religion in schools and preparing children for first communion. Mr Trzaskowski argued that it was more important for education to focus on values such as the constitution. Robert Biedroń attacked the President for failing to apologise for his views on LGBT rights and said he was the only candidate standing on a platform of removing religious instruction from schools. Szymon Hołownia argued that each school with its parents should decide on the shape of religious teaching, and that there was a need for the church to be held accountable for paedophilia and for the way some parts of it has spent taxpayers’ money. President Duda reminded viewers that state-church relations are covered by the concordat with the Vatican and that the Polish constitution guarantees parents the right to have their children brought up in accordance with their values. Krzysztof Bosak did not feel that religion in schools was an issue that concerned most Poles as they did not have to have their children attending religious classes.

LGBT rights

Candidates were asked if they would support same sex marriage and LGBT sex education for children. President Duda was opposed to any changes that would entail legalization of same sex unions such as marriage. Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz said that this was an issue polarizing rather than uniting Poles. Mr Trzaskowski said he supported civil partnerships for same sex couples on the basis of equality. Mr Hołownia declared he was in favour of civil partnerships but against same sex marriage and adoption. Mr Bosak accused the ruling party of failing to protect children from externally funded sex education. Robert Biedroń said he was the only candidate who had the courage to admit he was in favour of equality for all but did not actually state he would legislate for same sex marriage.

The Euro

Candidates were asked if they would support replacing the Polish zloty with the Euro. President Duda said that the zloty has served Poland well through the last economic crisis and that it is too early to debate when it should be replaced with the Euro as Poland needs more time to catch up with the west. Mr Bosak argued that the Euro is unacceptable as an example of further integration with the EU. Rafał Trzaskowski said that the EU accession treaty obliges Poland to introduce the Euro at some point in future but that the time for that was not right for either Poland or the EU. He, Szymon Hołownia and Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz felt that the need today was to think about how to help businesses to preserve jobs and not to talk about the Euro. Mr Biedroń said that it was more important to talk about EU funds.

Health

Candidates were asked whether Poland should buy any vaccine for the Coronavirus and whether it should be mandatory. Mr Trzaskowski asked the government whether the pandemic was really over and when money that is being spent on public TV will be spent on healthcare. Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz said that he would support mandatory vaccination but felt the health system needed major reform. Krzysztof Bosak opposed both the vaccine and compulsion in its use and argued that healthcare workers should stop saying contradictory things about the pandemic. Szymon Hołownia said there was nothing to talk about as there was no vaccine and that there was a need to improve health care and health workers pay. President Duda argued that the vaccine should be voluntary and made available quickest for the old and reminded of the growth in health spending under the current government.

Last impressions count

In their summing up each candidate wanted to provide a sound bite that might be memorable. Robert Biedroń focused on the need for change. Rafał Trzaskowski’s message was that Poland needed a strong and independent president who would build a common Poland for all and that he was willing to work with the government but would not tolerate abuse of power. Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz said that there was a need to end polarisation and to tackle the political , economic and health crisis. Szymon Hołownia emphasized that he, unlike other candidates, was not dependent on any party and would stay faithful to being independent of all parties. President Duda reminded voters of the government’s achievements and that Poles were better off than they were five years ago. He told voters that they knew he would deliver his promises as he had done so over the last five years. Krzysztof Bosak argued that Poland needed to get away from the PiS v PO battle and that he would concentrate on the national interest and defence of traditions.

Cacophony of messages

The questions asked were specific, some would say too narrow. They were purely about candidates views on issues rather than their experience and aptitude for the job.

Candidates used the questions to project their messages, often leaving the essence of the question by the wayside. That was inevitable in a format of having 11 candidates and no real opportunity to inter-relate.

President Duda had a relatively easy night in which the questions suited the clear positions he takes on the issues that were raised. But some will feel he did not leave behind any striking images and said little about what he would do in the future.

The opposition’s main challenger Rafał Trzaskowski had his arguments well rehearsed and avoided the bear traps in the questions and got across the main messages of his campaign.

There were no real surprises. Krzysztof Bosak reinforced his image as providing an alternative to PiS on the right. Mr Hołownia made as much as he could of being the independent candidate. Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz persevered with his centrist strategy. Mr Biedroń tried to outflank Mr Trzaskowski on the left but failed to produce messages that would resonate and make voters feel he had any real chance of making an impact on this election.

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