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Can Warsaw mayor Rafał Trzaskowski reverse the fortunes of Poland’s opposition?

Rafał Trzaskowski mayor of warsaw

Poland’s 2020 presidential election has so far been nothing short of a roller coaster.

Here’s a quick recap: Just four days before the election was due to take place on May 10, the vote was postponed, much to the chagrin of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS). However, while the country’s main opposition party Civic Platform (PO) did finally get its way by delaying the election, things have not been plain sailing for its presidential candidate, Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska. A disastrous campaign (not entirely of her own making, given the difficulty of campaigning during a lockdown) left her polling at just four per cent. Shortly after the election was postponed, she pulled out.

Into the breach has stepped the current mayor of Warsaw, Rafał Trzaskowski.

Civic Platform is now facing an identity crisis. With Ms Kidawa-Błońska’s campaign having fallen apart, Mr Trzaskowski’s first goal has been to re-establish Civic Platform’s status as the legitimate opposition party. As Professor Aleks Szczerbiak of Sussex University tells Emerging Europe, “Although he will obviously be doing everything he can to win, Trzaskowski’s primary goal in standing is really to save Civic Platform.”

Mr Trzaskowski seems to be at least self-aware of the challenge that he now faces, having told the Polish press that his situation was “not easy” and required “full consolidation and energy to fight and win in this election,” while maintaining that “I hope this great wave of change will start in Warsaw.”

Having entered the race significantly late, many view Mr Trzaskowski as being at a distinct disadvantage. As Paulina Lenik of the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies tells Emerging Europe, “Kidawa-Błońska left the race with virtually no electorate in her favour. Trzaskowski must not only leave the service he has just started [as mayor], but also catch up with the ongoing presidential race.”

However, other analysts see his late entry as a strength.

As Martin Mycielski of the Open Dialogue Foundation puts it, “thanks to entering only now, he’s free of the baggage that other opposition candidates have – the image of struggling, ‘better than nothing’ alternatives for Duda.”

This “better than nothing” sentiment is a phenomenon that has been reflected throughout the opposition in recent years. Civic Platform, among others, consistently struggles to compete with the strong message of coherency PiS conveys. “Part of the long-term issue with Civic Platform is their inability to offer a credible alternative on the socio-economic issues that Poles care most about,” says Mr Szczerbiak. Instead, much of the opposition has myopically banked solely on the fact that they are “the opposition” for voter support. Establishing a party identity purely by being “anti-PiS” has left many voters disenchanted, casting votes against PiS and Mr Duda, rather than voting for Civic Platform. Here voters are purely giving Civic Platform the benefit of the doubt, rather than enthusiastic approval. Therefore, the challenges that Mr Trzaskowski faces go far deeper than Ms Kidawa Błońska’s collapse in support.

While Mr Trzaskowski’s candidacy almost certainly falls short of giving the party the facelift it so desperately needs, he has quickly been able to inject some energy as liberal Poland’s poster boy. Yet, as Mr Szczerbiak so aptly states, “Trzaskowski’s greatest strength is also his greatest weakness”. Paradoxically, Trzaskowski’s success at personifying the young, liberal urbanite that allowed him to rise to success in Warsaw, are the same values that could see his downfall elsewhere. As Kasia Szczypska of the Open Dialogue Foundation tells Emerging Europe, “It’s conventional knowledge in Poland that ‘you don’t win presidential elections in the cities’. It remains to be seen if he can win the hearts of small-town voters.”

It is these conservative, rural voters that Trzaskowski has been seen to previously alienate with his advocacy of progressive values, such as his signing of a pro-LGBT charter in 2019. Gaining support in rural areas will take nothing short of a miracle, particularly as a result of his inability to win over softer conservatives. “He’s a representative of the Warsaw middle-class intelligentsia,” argues Mr Mycielski, “the exact opposite of the folksy everyman Duda, and the opposite of what the majority of Poles identify with.”

Similarly, Mr Trzaskowski’s performance as mayor of Warsaw is a double-edged sword. While it will encourage the liberal-left voter, his track record is something that Mr Duda’s campaign can capitalise on. Due to Warsaw’s typical left-leaning demographic, Mr Trzaskowski was able to win the mayoral position with a relaxed campaign, and his time in office has been beset with broken promises and a soft grip on power. As Mr Szczerbiak explains, his tenure in Warsaw would not make any difference to his prospects of re-election as mayor, as Warsawians would vote for him regardless. However, it will have a significant impact on a national level as PiS has ammunition to zero-in on his mayoral term that wasn’t especially competent. Moreover, while his policies are more well-received in Warsaw, they are anathema to culturally conservative Poles in rural areas. Ms Lenik goes so far as to argue that his term in Warsaw has left him with a depleted political capital, reducing his chances of success at a national level.

Such a style of leadership could be the downfall of Trzaskowski, particularly if he finds himself in a second-round run-off against Mr Duda.

“As opposed to battle-tested, seasoned heavyweights like, let’s say, former foreign and defence minister Radek Sikorski, Trzaskowski is kind, good-hearted and – many would say – soft, which might be his downfall in a direct confrontation with Duda. As one Twitter commentator put it: after the infamous sewage spill in Warsaw a couple of months ago Trzaskowski was explaining himself and apologising to citizens. Sikorski would have simply cursed and said that state TV headquarters had just exceeded its capacity for bullshit,” explains Mr Mycielski.

Many members of PiS and its supporters have used the argument that Trzaskowski hasn’t been able to look after the capital, and used this as “proof” that any potential presidency would fall short. For example, PiS MEP Adam Bielan urged “Trzaskowski to finally take over the management of the city”, implying that he has so far failed to do so. However, while Mr Trzaskowski’s leadership of Warsaw hasn’t been a glowing success, it hasn’t been dismal either, and Ms Szczypska argues that: “If PiS had any dirt on Trzaskowski, it would have put it to use back in 2018.”

An internal party email leaked on May 21 asking PiS members to look for dirt suggests they still have little to work with.

“They don’t have anything on him, so they’re left with ‘reheating old pork chops’, as we say in Poland. PiS’s propaganda machine is in clear disarray over Trzaskowski, as there doesn’t seem to be one common narrative on how to attack him. Most commonly they refer to his pro-equality agenda, scaring people with the idea that he will flood Poland with deviants, or claiming he would support the liberalisation of the tough anti-abortion law, warning of his support for the ‘culture of death’,” Mr Mycielski continues. “These are nothing new and will hardly convince anyone already open to supporting him not to do so. It seems indeed more likely that they will put less pressure on attacking him personally, and rather focus on attacking his party. They will claim Trzaskowski would be the harbinger of the return of PO, which would undo their ‘good change’, taking away social benefits and putting Poland back in the hands of western overlords in Berlin or Brussels.”

However, in spite of Mr Trzaskowski shortcomings, things are beginning to look up for Civic Platform. Since announcing that he would stand, his popularity has been rising in the polls and as the post-pandemic realities settle in, the attitudes towards the PiS-supported incumbent, Mr Duda, are shifting. The rally effect of the pandemic crisis that saw Mr Duda propped up is now dissipating, as a new reality of economic hardship dawns upon many. Moreover, the recent controversies surrounding alleged censorship of a radio station by PiS and faulty Covid-19 supplies from China have not done Mr Duda any favours.

Regardless, Mr Duda remains the candidate to beat.

“PiS has an extremely effective campaign strategy and a versatile PR team. Duda’s recent appeal to the young generation on social media such as YouTube and TikTok, was mocked by many, but achieved a truly memorable imprint,” says Ms Lenik. However, Mr Duda’s campaign strategies are changing, and Mr Mycielski argues that PiS sees Trzaskowski as a credible threat.

In order for Trzaskowski to become an official candidate, Civic Platform now needs to gather 100,000 signatures. Mr Trzaskowski has expressed the hope that “the elections that are likely to take place in June will be democratic elections, not a farce”. He has nevertheless expressed concern over the amount of time he will be granted to collect the signatures.

“Last I heard it was two days, with a worry it would only be one, but either way this will be extremely challenging and can serve as grounds for questioning the legitimacy of the election,” argues Mr Mycielski. “Even with Civic Platform’s robust structures this will be a difficult feat to accomplish, and PiS is doing its best to make the task even harder.”

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According to Mr Mycielski, this proves that PiS views the new Civic Platform candidate as a genuine threat. This is something Mr Szczerbiak contests, as he sees Trzaskowski’s candidacy as an easier option for PiS compared to more centrist candidates such as Szymon Hołowina that would provide more competition. Of course, this doesn’t mean that PiS won’t try to restrict Civic Platform’s ability to obtain the required signatures, but it would be illogical to do so, he argues.

The date of the election itself is still up in the air, and realistically could be anywhere between June and when Duda’s term expires in August. Currently, Mr Duda is well ahead in the polls, at 49 per cent, and his place in the second round is a certainty. Who will be joining him in that second round is more questionable. Time will tell if Mr Trzaskowski is able to continue on his upwards trajectory and confirm Civic Platform as the legitimate opposition party. Another figure to look out for is Mr Hołownia, a TV personality and independent liberal who targets Civic Platform’s demographic and may be able to grab the more centrist voter that Trzaskowski has alienated. Both are currently neck and neck at 15 per cent.

Most commentators agree that once in the second round, all opposition voters will unite around one candidate regardless of their initial reservations. And while Mr Duda is ahead of all comers in a potential run-off, anything could happen between now and the election, whenever that may be.

Ultimately the election will come down to who Poles will trust to take care of the country post-pandemic. For this, Mr Duda’s campaign currently has the popular PiS welfare benefits scheme up its sleeve, arguing that only their man can be seen to look after those most heavily impacted by economic hardship. These handouts have been a sore point for the opposition, consistently unable to offer a viable alternative and leaving many figures with little option but to say they too are in favour of the welfare payments.

Another defining feature of Mr Duda’s campaign is that the country will only be able to persevere with a united prime minister and president if he wins, and that any division of power will impede the recovery. Of course, this argument fails to acknowledge the importance of governmental checks and balances, and the potential to limit the power of a party that continues to infringe on independent institutions well beyond its scope, such as state-run media and the judicial system.

“Stripping PiS of the presidency will halt its legislative offensive,” Mr Mycielski says. “This could very well be the last stand for Polish democracy and the rule of law – with the direction PiS is moving the country in, many of the changes, the chipping away at democracy, might prove irreversible.”

Ms Szczypska agrees: “It can’t be stressed enough what is at stake here,” she concludes.

Photo: Rafał Trzaskowski official Facebook page.

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