(CN) — Polish voters on Sunday narrowly re-elected a nationalist conservative president and delivered a bitter blow to liberals in Europe who fear that Poland is drifting away from democracy and becoming a threat to the stability of the European Union.
Running a homophobic campaign in which he called for banning child adoptions by same-sex couples, incumbent President Andrzej Duda took in 51% of the vote to defeat liberal Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski in a divisive and bitter presidential runoff with far-reaching implications for Europe.
Duda is also an ally of U.S. President Donald Trump and visited the White House during the election campaign in June. Trump is building a relationship with Poland's nationalist government and has talked about stationing more American troops in Poland and building a new military base there.
Trzaskowski was seen by liberals in Europe as the best hope to stop Poland's right-wing nationalist party from turning the large Central European nation with 38 million inhabitants into an authoritarian state that challenges the core tenets of the EU. Poland became an EU member in 2004 but it and Hungary, another former Soviet-bloc nation, have become headaches for EU institutions because they are run by far-right nationalist governments with authoritarian instincts.
Duda is aligned with Poland's ruling Law and Justice party, a deeply conservative nationalist party supported mostly by rural and older voters who like the party's generous social spending program, such as lowering the retirement age, and its pro-Polish rhetoric.
Since it seized power in 2015, the party has been accused of undermining Poland's democracy by overhauling its courts to concentrate power in the party's hands, stifling free speech, turning Poland's public media into a propaganda machine and pushing racist, homophobic and discriminatory policies.
Under Poland's parliamentary system of government, the president does not wield a lot of power but a president can veto parliamentary legislation and Trzaskowski's campaign was built around his promise to do just that and block the Law and Justice party's legislative agenda.
Instead, Duda's victory gives the Law and Justice party the momentum to push ahead with its controversial reforms that are being challenged as unlawful by EU institutions.
Poland is viewed in liberal circles in Europe as a threat to the EU's system of laws because it is undermining rule of law principles, most significantly in the way the Law and Justice party has overhauled Poland's judicial system. Those changes include seeking to force judges into early retirement and setting up a new disciplinary chamber within the Supreme Court. The Law and Justice party argues it is fixing a flawed system ruled by a caste of corrupt judges left over from the communist era. The government also argues the old court system was slow, inefficient and tolerated corrupt practices.
Timothy Garton Ash, a politics professor at the University of Oxford, said on Twitter that Duda's win after a “filthy campaign” will give the Law and Justice party three more years “to attempt further erosion of liberal democracy.” Polish parliamentary elections are set to take place in 2023.
“Why did Andrzej Duda win? There will (and should) be talk of public media propaganda and creation of enemies (LGBT, etc),” said Stanley Bill, a Polish politics expert at the University of Cambridge, on Twitter. “But foundations of victory still lie in the sense of many in small-town-and-village Poland that their lives are better and that they count under [Law and Justice] and Duda.” (Parentheses in original.)
The presidential campaign showcased the deep divisions in Polish society with Trzaskowski picking up most of his votes in large towns and cities while Duda, a 48-year-old former lawyer, swept rural districts. At 68%, turnout was the second highest in any election since 1989 when Poland began its transition from communism to democracy.
The election results may be challenged because critics accuse the Law and Justice party of irregularities in holding the election during the coronavirus pandemic. The election was scheduled to take place in May and it was postponed because of the pandemic. Trzaskowski lost by about a half million votes.
Duda and his supporters ran a campaign tailored to win conservative Roman Catholic Poles by attacking “LGBT ideology” as worse than communism, declaring that Germany was seeking to influence the elections through German-owned Polish news outlets and falsely claiming that Trzaskowski wants to pay reparations to Jews for the horrors of World War II. Duda also portrayed Trzaskowski as a stooge for “global elites” seeking to undermine Poland's independence.
In a revealing interview on a conservative Catholic media network on the eve of the election, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the powerful chairman of the Law and Justice party and Poland's de facto leader, made many of these claims.
“There is a battle for the future of Poland,” he said, “our civilization, our culture, its existence.”
Kaczynski said Trzaskowski did not “have a Polish heart and soul” and that he wanted to treat “Poland as an appendage of Germany.” Poland and Germany have a long history of animosity and Kaczynski's party is seeking reparations from Germany for World War II.
He also accused Germany of interference in the election through German-owned media outlets. Kaczynski and Duda were angered by an article published by a German-owned newspaper about the details of a convicted child sex abuser Duda pardoned.
“An extremely brutal and far-reaching intervention from the German press has taken place,” Kaczynski said. “In the future, we must prevent this kind of situation.”
Kaczynski is pushing to rid German ownership of Polish media and turn Poland's media landscape into one controlled even more by his party.
The presidential campaign was marked by biased coverage by the public media, which is supposed to be impartial. In one broadcast, TVP, the state television, falsely said Trzaskowski was in favor of paying restitution to Jews for the Holocaust and was not interested in seeking reparations from Germany.
“On 12 July, Poles choose what kind of policy the president of Poland will pursue: pro-Polish or pro-Germany,” the news broadcast said.
The state television broadcaster also portrayed Trzaskowski as working on behalf of Hungarian-born billionaire and pro-democracy philanthropist George Soros and the Bilderberg Group, an annual meeting of political and business leaders from North America and Europe. Soros and the Bilderberg Group are frequently attacked by conspiracy theorists.
TVP was accused by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, a Vienna-based intergovernmental group that promotes arms control and fair elections, of conducting “reporting charged with xenophobic and antisemitic undertones.”
Trzaskowski represented the Civic Platform, a pro-European liberal centrist party that was formerly in power before the Law and Justice party took over. He sought to win with a positive message advocating to make Poland a more open society.
In an analysis, Teneo, a London-based political risk firm, said Duda’s victory paves the way for the government to continue with its reform of the judiciary and seek “greater control over private media.”
“Tensions with the EU,” it said, “are expected to remain high.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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