Poland presidential vote augurs ill for EU relations

Presidential win for Eurosceptic PiS has raised concerns over autumn’s election

Andrzej Duda, presidential candidate of the Law and Justice Party (PiS), after the announcement of the first exit poll results on the second round of presidential elections in Warsaw, Poland. Photograph: Reuters/Agata Grzybowska/Agencja Gazeta

Andrzej Duda, presidential candidate of the Law and Justice Party (PiS), after the announcement of the first exit poll results on the second round of presidential elections in Warsaw, Poland. Photograph: Reuters/Agata Grzybowska/Agencja Gazeta

 

After eight harmonious years, the European Union faces the prospect of renewed tensions with Warsaw after Polish voters, with an eye on autumn’s general election, elected a new president over the weekend. With 54 per cent support, lawyer Andrzej Duda (43) of the nationalist conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) will become Poland’s sixth post-communist head of state, ousting 62-year-old incumbent Bronislaw Komorowski.

The vote was a warning signal to Komorowski’s allies in the ruling liberal Civic Platform (PO). The PiS’s populist leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski hopes to build on the weekend momentum and oust the PO from power in the autumn.

In this he now has a crucial ally in Duda. Previously a PiS junior minister and MEP, he was a surprise choice for the presidential campaign. But the Krakow native ran a barnstorming campaign, closed a 30-point gap in just three months and trounced Komorowski in the election.

After five years in office, Komorowski said he respected the people’s choice and wished Duda “a good presidency because I wish Poland well”.

Though largely a ceremonial figure, Poland’s president has considerable powers to veto legislation – particularly from political rivals. Duda could be a key power broker in post-general election coalition talks and has flagged his determination to influence foreign policy. This includes promises for an EU competence claw-back and “recalibrated” German relations.

Given Warsaw’s recent rise to a trusted and stable EU partner – largely thanks to ties with Germany – such talk, and the prospect of Kaczynski’s return, will set alarm bells ringing in Berlin and Brussels.

His two-year term from 2005 – sharing power with his late brother, president Lech Kaczynski – was marked by a series of bad-tempered rows with many EU partners.

In opposition since 2007, Kaczynski has maintained his populist, nationalist, conservative and Eurosceptic line and is narrowly ahead in polls.

Higher taxes

Duda’s campaign platform covered all PiS policy bases – pro-Nato, anti-IVF, demands for higher taxes on foreign companies, opposition to the euro, and a promised reversal of retirement at 67.

And as a former altar boy and scout, married with one daughter, Duda ticked many boxes required to appeal to rural Polish voters. He earned his political spurs as an adviser to Kaczynski but, born in 1972, he presented himself as the face of a new generation, less caught up in the feuds over Poland’s negotiated transition to democracy that have dominated politics since 1989.

By adopting a more moderate, consensus-building style, post-election analysis showed he won over many voters turned off by his mentor Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s take-no-prisoners political style, heavy on conspiracy theory and condemnation of Russia and Germany.

“I know we can be united and that together we can rebuild our country,” said Duda after his victory. “Those who voted for me have voted for change.”

When he takes office in August, Poles will watch to see if that promise of change means liberating himself from his mentor, or instead joining Kaczynski’s fight against the ruling PO’s brand of economic liberalism.

As sixth-largest economy in the EU, with cumulative growth since 2007 of 33 per cent, Poland’s PO prime ministers – first Donald Tusk, now Ewa Kopacz – trumpet how Poland was the only EU country not to have entered recession during the recent crisis.

Economic hardship

But salaries rose in this period only by 18 per cent – about two-thirds of Poles live on some €700 a month – and the autumn poll will hinge on frustration over continued economic hardships.

Polish political veterans, led by former Solidarity union leader and president Lech Walesa, said they were not surprised by Duda’s victory. Adam Michnik, editor of the leading Gazeta Wyborcza daily, called the Duda win a “generation revolt” by younger voters “fatigued” with the old political guard and eight years of PO rule.

Kaczynski was nowhere to be seen on election night but a spokeswoman said he was delighted with the result and hopeful of a second win in the autumn.