Analysis: the challenger for the presidency

Rafał Trzaskowski, the candidate for the largest opposition party, the Civic Platform (PO) came second in the first round of the presidential election polling 30.3 percent of the vote. President Andrzej Duda polled 43.7 percent.

Rafał Trzaskowski must now seek to win support from other opposition candidates such as the independent Szymon Hołownia (13.9 percent) the radical right’s Krzysztof Bosak (6.8 percent) as well as the Polish People’s Party (PSL) Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz (2.4 percent) and the Left’s Robert Biedroń (2.2 percent). No candidate has ever made up so much ground to win from second place in a Polish presidential election. But then no incumbent President has ever won a second round of a presidential contest either.

Mr Trzaskowski’s party is happy with his performance. He has polled more than the party’s opinion poll rating and has ensured that the party remains Poland’s top opposition party. Whatever now happens in the second round Rafał Trzaskowski has become an important figure in Polish politics.

A man of the elites

During the election Mr Trzaskowski has built a public image of a family man with progressive views in the European mainstream. He deliberately set out to downplay his roots in the Polish intelligentsia as it appeals in metropolitan areas only.

He has been in active politics for 11 years. In that time he has been an MEP, a minister, a member of the Lower House of the Polish Parliament and for the last 18 months he has been mayor of Warsaw.

His record as Warsaw Mayor is still relatively short as he has been in the job for 19 months. In that time he has faced criticism from the right for signing a LGBT rights charter that entailed LGBT sex eduction for school children. He has also been criticised for being slow and secretive in response to a leakage of sewage into the river Vistula and for the fact that his administration is not rebuilding the Athletics stadium in Warsaw.

He is the son of a respected Polish musician with plenty of close contacts in the world of the arts. He is well educated and speaks five foreign languages, including fluent English.

Mr Trzaskowski is very proud of his proficiency in the English language. When challenged by a by-stander to answer a question in English he chastised the man for having a fake American accent. Asked if he would debate President Duda in English, he quipped “I wouldn’t be that cruel”.

During the campaign for Mayor of Warsaw he mentioned that he was a student of prof. Bronisław Geremek at the elite Natolin College of Europe where he enjoyed being educated on the history of the EU in French by the former Polish minister of foreign affairs. In an interview he did jointly with his wife for Newsweek Polska he admitted that he rarely drives himself. Wise choice, if prof. Geremek also taught him how to drive.

Mr Trzaskowski is very much in the mould of politicians like Emmanule Macron and Justin Trudeau. He would fit in very well with other EU leaders too. But close relations with President Trump might be rather unlikely.

The foreign journalists and diplomats would have a rather difficult Polish name they would quickly need to learn to pronounce. But then change inevitably entails some pain.

Trzaskowski’s campaign so far

Mr Trzaskowski and his team had little time in which to turn the PO ship around. He was following in the footsteps of the failed campaign of Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska who had crashed to single figures in the opinion polls. The new campaign team had to act fast as the independent Szymon Hołownia and the PSL’s Władysław Kosiniak -Kamysz were doing well with the voters and President Duda was far ahead.

First, they neutralized issues that could harm the candidate. This was done when Mr Trzaskowski made crystal clear that he would veto any attempts to remove universal child benefit or to raise the age of retirement. Next they countered the argument that it was better to have the PM and President from the same party by making the argument that checks and balances would work better with a President who was independent of the ruling party and its leader. And they refused to rise to the bait of engaging in arguments over LGBT or abortion by refusing to get involved in discussing the issue. They also evaded any extensive discussion of the rule of law issue and attitudes towards the European Union, as they rightly judged that these issues talked only to their hard core vote and not to undecided and sceptical voters they needed onside.

Instead they concentrated their fire on health, education, the need for prioritising local over central investments and the need to make changes in public media. They saw these issues as areas of weakness for the government. There was no point in trying to pretend they could outbid the ruling party on social transfers, so they concentrated on attempting to argue that more needed to be done for key public services such as health and education. The Trzaskowski campaign criticised large investments they deemed to be ‘white elephants’ such as the Central Airport/travel hub and the Vistula Spit Canal, arguing that these resources would be better used for local investments. Finally, they argued that money should not be used to fund pro-government public media.

In the second round they will need to persuade Mr Hołownia’s supporters that they will try to build consensus. They will also have to persuade Mr Biedroń’s voters that Mr Trzaskowski will do what he can for minority rights while at the same time persuading Mr Bosak’s voters that Mr Trzaskowski is willing to back entrepreneurs and will not be a revolutionary on cultural issues.