ANALYSIS: Far right Duda wins Poland’s knife-edge presidential election

By Tash Shifrin | 10 July 2020

Andrzej Duda. Pic credit: Kancelaria Sejmu / Rafał Zambrzycki

MONDAY 13 JULY: The result of the Polish Presidential election has been confirmed.

The far right incumbent Andrzej Duda has won. He took 51.2% of the vote and his liberal challenger Rafał Trzaskowski, the mayor of Warsaw, received 48.8% of the vote.

This is a significant victory for the far right in Poland and across the globe.

As this article demonstrates Duda ran a nasty campaign directing his venom against Poland’s LGBT community, and his supporters – including the state TV channel – tapped antisemitic themes during the campaign.

The vote will be officially declared later today.

Preview and analysis

If Duda, candidate of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, wins a second term, it will consolidate the party’s position in parliament, where it has an overall majority. If Trzaskowski wins, he will be able to use the presidential veto to block the PiS agenda.

Duda and Trzaskowski have been in a race to scoop up the votes of the defeated candidates in the first round of the election, on Sunday 28 June, including the 6.8% who voted for Krzysztof Bosak, from the Konfederacja – the lash-up between fascist Ruch Narodowy and hardcore far right politician Janusz Korwin-Mikke.

The Konfederacja combines the racism, homophobia and ultranationalism of the fascist groups with a low-tax, free market approach to economics drawn from Korwin-Mikke.

The first round results

This election was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. But only just: the PiS government had originally tried to ram the election through in May with an entirely postal vote – although this would have been unconstitutional – to take advantage of Duda’s temporarily high standing in the polls during the national crisis.

By the time the election was eventually staged, Duda’s ratings had fallen back. The first round vote put him in first place but without passing the 50% threshold needed to avoid a second round. He took 43.7% of the vote, up from the 34.8% he took in the first round in the previous election of 2015.

Meanwhile Trzaskowski, backed by the centrist Civic Platform (PO) party, took 30.3% of the vote. Another 13.8% voted for independent candidate Szymon Hołownia, a TV personality and former journalist. A series of smaller parties failed to make much of a mark, including the leftwing “Spring” party, which took just 2.22%

Alongside the rising vote for far right Duda, the Konfederacja’s 6.8% – more than 1.3 million voters – should sound alarm bells.

The total far right and fascist vote combined in the first round was 50.5% – enough to give Duda the win if he is able to marshall all of it behind him in the second round.

In 2015, Korwin’s self-titled party took only 3.26% of the vote, while a tiny 0.52% cast their votes for RN – an electoral alliance between two mainly paramilitary groups, the National-Radical Camp (Obóz Narodowo-Radykalny – ONR), the modern successor to a pre-war Polish fascist movement of the same name and the All-Polish Youth (Młodzież Wszechpolska – MW).

These fascist organisations lead the huge marches through Warsaw on Poland’s Independence Day each November, on which we have reported for many years.

Far right presidential candidate Andrzej Duda at an election rally

How the first round vote breaks down

Data from a first round exit poll by Ipsos showed that the youngest segment of voters was Duda’s weakest area, with the vote quite evenly split between the four main candidates. Trzaskowski came in first with 24.5%, followed by Holownia on 23.9%, Bosak on 21.7% and Duda on 20.3%.

It is striking and worrying that the Konfederacja’s Bosak polled so well among younger voters.

Duda’s percentage of the vote rose through the age groups to reach 59.8% among over 60s, compared with 30.7% for Trzaskowski. This oldest section was notably most reluctant to vote for the fascists, with only 1.1% backing the Konfederacja’s Bosak.

The vote for Duda was strongest in smaller towns and farming areas, with Trzaskowski ahead in the big cities.

Duda also polled well ahead of Trzaskowski in the poorer occupational groups, with 72% among farmers, 62% of pensioners, 55% of workers and 55% of unemployed people.
Trzaskowski did best among entrepreneurs, with 44%, professional and managerial groups (43%) and students – although with only 27%, ahead of Holownia on 24.7%.

Among students, Bosak’s vote was very strong at 20.4%, aligning closely with the fascists’ support in the youngest age group. Duda took just 15.6% of the student vote.

The vote for Duda and the PiS is also concentrated in the south and east of Poland – apart from the major cities of Warsaw and Lodz – in a pattern that strikingly coincides with the parts of the country that before World War One were ruled by the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires.

The historically more industrially developed part of the country once under Prussian (German) rule voted more strongly for Trzaskowski.

In such a tight race, the votes of Polish citizens living overseas could be critical. Exit poll data for Polish voters in Britain showed Trzaskowski well ahead on 46.4% with Duda on just 17.1%. Holownia was in second place with 20%, while Bosak took 10.6%, a noticeably higher percentage than for voters in Poland itself.

Duda, the PiS and the fascists

There is a dynamic relationship between Duda and his PiS government, and the RN fascists, with the RN acting as a ginger group urging Duda and the PiS rightwards, while every shift by the ruling party in turn legitimises and boosts the fascists.

In 2018, Duda even backed and spoke at the fascist-led Independence Day march, an unprecedented move for such a senior political figure.

White Power symbol on a banner at the 2019 Independence Day march, Warsaw. Behind this are the green sword flags of fascist group MW (All-Polish Youth). Pic credit: Dream Deferred

The PiS came to power in the general election of October 2015. In the same election, fascist MPs sneaked into parliament under the banner of the strange populist formation Kukiz’15, led by a former rock star.

Last year, the parliamentary elections saw the PiS party’s vote go up from 37.58% in 2015 to 43.59%. Meanwhile, the Konfederacja took 6.81% of the vote, winning 11 MPs’ seats. Of these, five MPs are members of the fascist RN – no longer hidden behind the facade of Kukiz’15.

Homophobia and antisemitism

The PiS fought October’s general election campaign on a platform that was deeply homophobic, picking up a key theme pushed by the fascists – the supposed dangers of “LGBT ideology”, sometimes dubbed “gender ideology” and in reality an attack on LGBT people and their human rights.

The anti-LGBT onslaught has also a main theme of Duda’s presidential election campaign. In his most vicious attack, Duda proclaimed: “They’re trying to convince us that these are people. But it’s simply an ideology.”

This “ideology” was “even more destructive to the human being” than communism, he added, with reference to the Russian-backed Stalinist regime that controlled Poland before 1989.

And these attacks are not limited to foul rhetoric. Egged on by the PiS government, around a third of Poland’s local authorities have declared their local areas to be “LGBT-free zones”.

An “Atlas of Hate” map shows these areas, which are concentrated in the eastern and southern parts of Poland that are the PiS’s heartlands.

During the parliamentary elections, the Konfederacja centred much of its electoral campaigning on the antisemitic theme of “Stop 447” – opposition to a US law requiring US authorities to report to Congress on different countries’ progress in compensating Holocaust survivors (or their heirs) for property seized during the Holocaust.

The fascists’ campaign in turn brought statements from the PiS leaders that they would refuse “a single zloty” in restitution for Jewish Holocaust survivors or their families.

While Duda has steered clear of more explicitly antisemitic comments in is presidential campaign, Poland’s public broadcaster TVP has wheeled out a series of antisemitic jibes in propagandistic coverage aimed at boosting his vote, including posing the question, “Will Trzaskowski fulfil Jewish demands?”

Welfare and anti-poverty measures

Duda and the PiS are seen as closely tied to the hierarchy of Poland’s powerful Catholic Church.

But their focus on supposed “family” issues, such as attacking LGBT people and Poland’s already limited abortion provision, is not solely ideological.

In government, the PiS has introduced a “500 plus” child benefit scheme, paying families 500 złoty (about £100) each month for every child after the first. A new measure that came into force this week will allow parents to claim a one-off 300 złoty grant for every child starting a new school year – a move that is expected to benefit around 4.6 million children.

These welfare measures have improved the lives of many poor people – figures show poverty rates declining in Poland across a number of measures – and they are very popular.

The combination of reactionary social policy and an economic approach aimed at supporting poorer sections of the population and boosting state infrastructure projects is Duda’s big pitch.

The second round

As the first round votes were counted, the Konfederacja announced that it would not endorse either candidate for the second round run-off, allowing it to maintain its critical stance towards Duda.

Instead, it also suggested voters should “follow their conscience”. If Konfederacja voters transfer their allegiance en masse to Duda that could give him enough votes to win the second round.

Duda followed his first round win with an immediate appeal to Konfederacja followers. “Very little separates me and Krzysztof Bosak,” he declared, pointing to “a very large pool of shared values”.

Where does Trzaskowski stand?

In contrast with Duda, Trzaskowski has projected a more liberal approach to social policy, with an economic leaning towards free market policies.

Trzaskowski is likely to win over a substantial proportion of Szymon Hołownia’s voters – although some will have backed the independent because they want an alternative to the regular two-party contests of the PiS and PO.

But Trzaskowski’s social liberalism is unreliable – and he has openly sought to woo Konfederacja voters among others in the second round. He thanked “Krzysztof Bosak and his constituents” on his campaign twitter account immediately after the first round vote.

Trzaskowski hopes his economic policies which look to the free market rather than the state will appeal to Konfederacja supporters too.

In response to Duda’s proposed constitutional ban on adoption by same-sex couples, Trzaskowski has stated that he is also opposed to same-sex adoption. And Trzaskowski told a TV audience he would “be absolutely ready to take part” in the Independence Day march.

Whether these craven overtures will pull Konfederacja voters away from Duda, whose reactionary far right positions are closer to their own, remains to be seen.

And both candidates will be striving to mobilise those who did not vote in the first round to back them in the run-off.

The consequences

Over the past five years, with Duda as president and the PiS in power through a majority in parliament, Poland has become a key element in the increasingly far right and authoritarian drift of the four-country Visegrad bloc, alongside Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

In particular, the PiS looks to be following in the footsteps of Hungary’s authoritarian far right governing party Fidesz, with observers pointing to a decline in Poland’s democratic standing and concerns about media freedom as the state broadcaster has unashamedly backed Duda.

PiS-run Poland has also become a flagship for the particularly virulent and dangerous homophobia that is an important feature of far right politics across Eastern Europe, while Duda and the wider far right have also tapped antisemitic themes.

It is no accident that US president Donald Trump broke protocol to invite Duda to meet him in the US during the Polish election campaign – Trump is keen to boost the position of the far right across Europe.

There is no way to predict who will win this incredibly tight race. But if Duda emerges victorious for a second term, effectively allowing the PiS government free reign as it moves further to the right, that would not only be bad news in Poland, but would provide the far right internationally with a renewed boost. If he loses, it will be a setback for the far right.


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