News & Analysis

Strap yourselves in: Poland’s presidency is up for grabs

Poland has finally set a date for its presidential election, June 28. The announcement of the date – made by Elżbieta Witek, the speaker of the Sejm, the Polish parliament – follows weeks of confusion and chaos that saw the original election, scheduled for May 10, called off at the last minute due to the Covid-19 pandemic, much to the disappointment of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) and its candidate, incumbent president Andrzej Duda.

Until just a couple of weeks ago Mr Duda had appeared to be a certainty to win a second term in office. Since then, his support has weakened along with the country’s economy, and with a new opposition candidate, Warsaw Mayor Rafał Trzaskowski, not to mention the addition of wild card independent Szymon Hołownia both in the running, the ground is starting to look a lot less stable for PiS.

The announcement is set to kick-start the stalled election campaign, and sets up 25 days of political tension, almost certainly to be followed by a further two weeks of heated debate ahead of a second round on July 12 should no candidate win more than 50 per cent on June 28.

“I would like it very much if we could finally pick the head of state. It’s a matter of Polish statehood,” said Ms Witek in a televised speech. Many Poles would agree.

This is a pivotal moment for Poland. For PiS, a victory for Mr Duda would tighten its grip on power and allow the party to continue with its conservative, nationalist agenda. For the opposition, a victory would allow it to halt PiS’s legislative offensive with the power of a presidential veto.

Not everyone is happy, however, and some legal experts have been quick to question the validity of the forthcoming election.

According to Professor Ewa Łętowska, a former judge on Poland’s Constitutional Court, the cancellation of the May 10 election was a political act with no legal grounding. “You can’t make a legal act out of political declaration alone,” she said. “Yet it happened.”

The way she sees it, a June 28 election would mean that opposition candidates have been unable to effectively campaign due to the pandemic, not to mention that the election should be held no later than 75 days before the end of the current president’s term in office. This chopping and changing of rules to fit the situation can have significant ramifications for the victor, she believes, whose mandate would balance precariously on the very edge of legitimacy.

“This is the erosion of free elections, the foundation of democracy. I’m not willing to use big words, but it’s really a scandal,” said Professor Łętowska, dismissing arguments that holding the election now is the most pragmatic approach to a situation without any easy resolution.

Technically, the only legal option would be to declare a state of emergency, in which elections cannot be held and Mr Duda’s current term can be extended, or to simply wait for Mr Duda’s term to expire on August 6. Any other option, claim some experts, would be unconstitutional.

However, the speaker of the opposition-controlled senate, Tomasz Grodzki, insists that the election will be entirely constitutional. “For me, the winner of this election, whoever it will be, will be the legally incumbent President of the Republic of Poland,” he said.

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While candidates already registered for the May 10 election will not have to recollect the 100,000 signatures required to stand, the new opposition Civic Coalition candidate Mr Trzaskowski has a big job ahead of him – he has just seven days to collect the 100,000 signatures.

At a press conference on June 3, Mr Trzaskowski emphasised: “We were waiting for this day. Finally, we can start the path to change. This change will not happen by itself, it requires commitment. In the collection of signatures, hanging banners. This change also requires conversation. We must learn to talk to each other again, over all divisions,” he said.

With only a few weeks left to campaign, the situation for the incumbent is getting tighter by the day. Some polls now have Mr Duda just two percentage points ahead of both Mr Hołownia and Mr Trzaskowski in a possible run-off.

Mr Duda’s popularity is currently declining as fast as Mr Traskowski’s is rising. While the incumbent is still in the lead at 42 per cent, some polls have seen his position weakening further, putting his support as low as 32 per cent. However, the opposition’s strength may only go so far – ultimately limited by its inability to unite and provide a viable alternative to PiS’s popular social welfare benefits.

Yet if Mr Duda, as now expected, fails to reach 50 per cent on June 28, a second round will see a head to head race that will ultimately pool all opposition votes behind one candidate. The Polish presidency is up for grabs. Strap yourselves in.

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