RZESZÓW, Poland — Andrzej Duda's reelection as Poland's president after a knife-edge runoff vote clears the way for the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) to push ahead with reforms that have put it on collision course with Brussels.
Duda's narrow victory on Sunday, with 51.21 percent versus 48.79 percent for Warsaw's centrist Mayor Rafał Trzaskowski of the Civic Platform (with 99.97 percent of polling stations reporting), gives him five more years as head of state, with the power to reject legislation that he doesn't like.
More significantly, it means the PiS — which backs Duda — has at least three more years, until the next general election, to push its radical reform program and cement its place as Poland's dominant political power. It has a majority in the lower chamber of parliament, while the opposition-controlled Senate doesn't have the power to stop bills proposed by the right-wing party.
Duda's supporters say his reelection ensures stability in challenging times, not least because of the coronavirus crisis. His opponents say the head of state will yet again lack the independence to provide checks and balances on Polish politics.
POLITICO took a look at the specific consequences for domestic politics and Poland's relationship with the European Union:
1) Continued hard line on media and society
Duda and high-level PiS politicians, including the party’s powerful leader Jarosław Kaczyński, used the campaign to set out some of their priorities for the next three years of almost untrammeled power.
High on the agenda will be their continued reform of media laws to consolidate government control, in a country where state-owned television functions as a mouthpiece for the ruling party in a manner reminiscent of Communist times.
Duda and other PiS politicians complained bitterly of foreign interference when news outlets in Poland owned by foreign media companies reported stories that were critical of the ruling party.
Regarding its wider agenda to create a conservative, Catholic society, Duda and the PiS also used the campaign to whip up anti-LGBTQ sentiment and propose a constitutional amendment that would bar same-sex couples from adopting children. Kaczyński said he hopes the Constitutional Court, which the PiS has brought under its control, will ban abortion in cases where the fetus has suffered irreparable damage in the womb.
The party will also continue with its two flagship infrastructure projects — a mega airport in central Poland and digging a canal through a Vistula Split — which Trzaskowski firmly opposed.
2) Defying Brussels on courts and climate
Law and Justice's ambitions for bringing wider society under centralized state control also spread to other public institutions, including local government and, crucially, the judiciary.
PiS's sweeping reforms of Poland's legal system over the past five years, largely with Duda's support, have been at the heart of the clashes between Warsaw and Brussels. The European Commission has launched four legal procedures over concerns about the rule of law in Poland, going so far as to trigger the so-called Article 7 disciplinary process on charges that Warsaw is breaching the EU's fundamental values. If that process went all the way, it could see Poland stripped of its voting rights in the EU.
The tone during the campaign remained defiant: Asked about priorities for the second term, the powerful Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro said “finishing the judicial reform in the country is coming to the fore” in the ruling party's agenda.
Other reforms that could prompt clashes with Brussels include the ruling party's opposition to the EU’s climate neutrality target, where Poland is the only member country not to commit to drastically limiting carbon emissions across the bloc by 2050.
During the campaign, however, Duda insisted he has "an absolutely positive" attitude toward the European Union and that Poland would not be leaving the bloc under his rule.
3) Opposition licks its wounds
The PiS and Duda promised that his reelection would mean three more years of political stability, but the noxious tone of the four-month campaign has taken its toll on many alliances and partnerships in Polish politics.
It's still unclear what will be the future of the ruling coalition, made up of PiS and smaller right-wing groups: One junior partner, Porozumienie, didn’t approve of the first planned date of the presidential election in May because of concerns about coronavirus, even though Duda was then on a clear path to a first-round victory. PiS needs a coalition party to maintain its majority in the parliament but might start looking elsewhere, such as the far-right Konfederacja or the conservative Polish People’s Party.
There are also many question marks over the future of Civic Platform, the biggest opposition party. This is the sixth consecutive election in which it has lost to the PiS, and recently it has been shedding supporters rather than gaining new ones. Trzaskowski — who joined the race late in mid-May as a substitute for Małgorzata Kidwa-Błońska, who was doing very poorly in the polls — was seen by many as the last resort to reverse Civic Platform's decline.
His defeat may prompt a reshuffle in the leadership and/or a shift in its focus. At the same time, Trzaskowski attracted almost 10 million votes on Sunday — a much higher number than any other opposition candidate has received in recent years. The party may decide it cannot waste that political capital.
4) Divided society
Political and social divisions in Polish society have become so deep that exit polls were too close to call in the lead-up to Sunday's second round of voting. They portrayed a country split down the middle between young and old, rural and urban, east and west. Duda attempted to address such divisions during the campaign, saying he “respects all Polish people regardless of their views.”
Beyond such words, however, the president did little to bury such differences in a campaign that politicians described as exceptionally brutal. Desperate to shore up conservative support, Duda launched an aggressive campaign against the LGBTQ community and urban elites, whose interests were defended by the Warsaw mayor.
PiS leader Kaczyński even attempted to appeal to latent anti-Semitic sentiment, using an interview with an ultra-Catholic broadcaster to accuse opposition candidate Trzaskowski of supporting the payment of restitution to Jews for property stolen during World War II.
Celebrating his apparent victory on Sunday night as the results came in, Duda made it clear that he "doesn't regret" any remarks made during the campaign.