Analysis: President Duda in poll position for second round

Polish President Andrzej Duda, backed by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) won the first round of the presidential election polling 43.7 percent of the vote, more than 13 percentage points more than his main challenger, the Civic Platform’s Rafał Trzaskowski.

There can be little doubt that the President Andrzej Duda was odds-on favourite to win this election. Had it taken place in May, the date originally scheduled it is more than likely that he would have won outright in the first round.

But the attempt to hold the election in May went very badly wrong and contributed to the President not having such an easy ride. However, he rose to the challenge and won through in the end.

The void

The attempt to hold the election in May proved to be a comedy of errors. First the Deputy PM said he was opposed to the ruling party leader’s wishes to hold it in May. Then the health minister said he was opposed to a traditional election in polling stations, so the ruling party rushed through legislation to enable a full absentee postal ballot. The trouble is that this was done in such a way that did not give the time for that process to be implemented. Then it disabled the possibility of holding a normal election in polling stations, despite the pandemic evidently being under control, because for some unexplained reason it hoped the opposition controlled Senate would pass the legislation. Last but not least, instead of declaring a short state of emergency to tie the opposition Civic Platform (PO) in to the failing candidate it fielded Law and Justice (PiS) went for voiding the election and starting all over again. This allowed the PO to make the change of candidate. The rest is history.

A difficult campaign period

In May things began to get difficult for the ruling party. The pandemic refused to subside and people were tired of the lock down and its strictures. President Duda was not able to offer a new wave of social transfers in such a climate either. His and the ruling party’s announcement of a 500 PLN per child travel voucher seemed timid in comparison with previous social transfers.

The surprise visit to Washington for a meeting with President Trump looks to have helped in solidifying support at a key moment. It enabled the President and his backers to emphasise how much has been done for the country’s military and energy security.

President Duda running on his record

Andrzej Duda was a surprise winner of the presidential election in 2015. He defeated the then incumbent President Bronisław Komorowski off the back of the unpopularity of the PO government that backed Mr Komorowski. But he proved himself to be a very good speaker and campaigner who rose from a low base of support to win both rounds of the 2015 presidential election.

The victory was the prelude to the PiS overall majority in the 2015 parliamentary election. Thanks to that victory the president was able to deliver on two major promises he had made to the voters: the introduction of universal child benefit and the lowering of the retirement age back to where it had been before the PO government raised it in 2012.

The Andrzej Duda presidency is one that has had foreign policy successes. The best ever relations with the US capped by a significant and enduring US military presence in Poland is no mean feat. Nor is the launch and maintenance of the Three Seas initiative as a Polish attempt to build its own North-South axis of Central European countries.

But it is also a presidency that had its problems on the domestic front. President Duda failed to resolve controversies over judicial reform, public media and was unsuccessful in his bid to get the constitution debated in a consultative referendum.

Nevertheless, the popular social transfers, a good economic record of the government and staunch defence of Polish traditions and history saw President Duda through. The pandemic may have been a painful experience but one which the public authorities in Poland have handled well.

Second round tactics

President Duda must now find support in the centre and on the right to secure re-election. He is targeting the near seven percent of voters who supported Krzysztof Bosak, the radical right “Confederation” candidate and those who voted for the Polish People’s Party’s candidate Władysław Kosiniak Kamysz (two and a half percent).

Since his opponent will make the second round a plebiscite on the ruling party and the government the President will inevitably be defending that record. However, he will also go after Mr Trzaskowski’s weak spots such as the record of the previous PO administration and Mr Trzaskowski’s record as mayor of Warsaw.

It is not clear at this stage whether and how the two remaining candidates will debate with each other on TV. Both say they want to. But the devil will lie in the detail. The campaign managers of each candidate will not want to put their champion at any disadvantage and the format for a head-to-head debate may take some agreeing.