Analysis: Tension grows as photo finish in presidential race beckons

Opinion polls are showing President Andrzej Duda and the Warsaw mayor and Civic Platform (PO) candidate to be neck and neck just two days before Sunday’s polling day. The result could determine the future of both the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) and the main opposition party, the PO.

President Duda is fighting for his political life and not just for another term under the presidential palace chandelier. If he loses he will become the youngest presidential ‘pensioner’ in Polish history, marginalised and humiliated by failing to be re-elected. His fate would be no better than the fate that befell President Bronisław Komorowski after the 2015 shock election defeat.

But more importantly, it would be a huge setback for the ruling PiS. Without the presidency the government’s legislative programme will be vulnerable to the presidential veto. Many state appointments would probably be blocked by the new president too and the incomer would also want to have his say on foreign and defence policy too.

The pressure that this would exert on the ruling block could see it torn apart. The majority in the Lower House is thin with some deputies from the centre-right Agreement party led by former Deputy PM Jarosław Gowin increasingly restless.

State of play

The first round result appeared to be good for the President, with him taking a 13 point lead over Mr Trzaskowski. But a closer examination showed that he had not polled, in terms of the share of the poll, any more than his party polled in the parliamentary elections and that turnout among pensioners, a social group which is pro-PiS was lower because of the pandemic.

The problem is that Mr Duda cannot easily count on any votes from other opposition candidates who stood in the first round and were eliminated. Both Mr Hołownia and Robert Biedroń have effectively backed Mr Trzaskowski, as have their voters.

This leaves Mr Duda with only the voters of the Polish People’s party and of the radical right Confederation to aim for. Not surprising therefore he has reached out to those parties effectively offering talks about a new coalition government after the presidential election is over.

The campaign before the second round has not gone according to plan for the President. He took a hit when his decision to pardon a paedophile from an exclusion order became an issue, even though that was filed for by the victims themselves who were the perpetrator’s family.

His campaign team failed to persuade Mr Trzaskowski to face a town hall debate, a format which they felt would have suited the president. As a result no debate took place. No loss, but also no gain.

Unfortunately, instead of the empty-chairing by his opponent in the town hall debate the news from the event became the President’s declaration that he was against compulsory vaccination. He wanted to send a message that Poland was involved in developing a vaccine with the US following his visit to meet President Trump. But what came out is a wink and a nod to the anti-vaccination lobby and accusations that the President was undermining the need to vaccinate children rather than just arguing for any eventual COVID-19 vaccine to be voluntary, in the same way that a flu jab is.

Nerves jangling on the opposition side too

As polling day approaches nerves are on display in the Trzaskowski team too. The party logo is virtually invisible in an effort to project him as the candidate of all the opposition. However, other opposition candidates have been limited in their enthusiasm to endorse him. None agreed to campaign alongside Mr Trzaskowski in the second round.

Some commentators believe that Mr Trzaskowski should have taken the risk of taking on the President in a town hall style debate organised by public broadcaster TVP. By not attending he risked offending the provincial voters he needs in small towns to win. The debate was to take place in one such town, Końskie in Świętokrzyskie province.

Should Mr Trzaskowski be defeated it is not the end of the political world for him. He will still be Mayor of Warsaw. Moreover he has become the opposition’s top politician.

The problem will be what happens to the Civic Platform after another defeat. There are those who feel that the whole of the opposition will need to be re-shaped and re-modelled for it to have a chance of winning the parliamentary elections in 2023. This remodelling may become inevitable should the PSL and Confederation decide to take up the PiS offer and go into a coalition at national and local level.