Why Poland’s presidential election may shake up the European Union

On Sunday, Poland votes on a president.

Warsaw has long been as island of stability in an increasingly volatile Central and Eastern Europe. But this presidential race is exposing the cracks in the country’s ruling elite and paving the way for what could likely be more unexpected results in the autumn parliamentary elections.

The results of the first round of the presidential election came as a shock for the country’s ruling elite — and for all Europe. President Bronislaw Komorowski had been expected to win going away but he was suddenly confronting a tougher-than expected runoff. He had a week to persuade Poles to re-elect him as his party — and the European Union — begin to worry.

The results suggested growing fatigue with Civic Platform, the party that has ruled Poland for almost a decade. The problem, however, is that there is no sensible alternative to it.

Andrzej Duda, the fresh face of Poland’s conservative Law and Justice Party, defied pollsters by defeating Komorowski in the first round. Meanwhile, a former punk rocker turned anti-establishment campaigner, Pawel Kukiz, stunned the country by scoring 20 percent of vote. The Polish left was virtually decimated, winning a combined 4.2 percent, roughly the same share as the Holocaust-denying, radical libertarian candidate Janusz Korwin-Mikke.

Civic Platform under Komorowski has pursued strong rapprochement with Berlin. The strategy was a cornerstone of Warsaw’s foreign policy and of growing importance in the European Union.

Duda and his Conservatives may talk tough about Russia, but he is challenging this pro-EU approach. He seeks to revise relations with Germany and distance Warsaw from Brussels. This surely makes Duda the favorite with the Kremlin, which is striving to disrupt the unity of the European Union as well as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Moscow also loathes Warsaw’s hawkish position on Ukraine.

Critics say Komorowski ran a lazy campaign. After losing the first round, the president now needs to motivate supporters who did not vote and could decide the election. Though he appeared as a strong leader in two televised debates with Duda last week, many fear Komorowski woke up too late.

Civic Platform has been in power since 2007, but has been weakened since its founder, and former prime minister, Donald Tusk swapped Warsaw for Brussels to serve as president of the European Council. Under Tusk’s successor, Ewa Kopacz, the party has struggled to redefine itself.

Presiding over uninterrupted economic growth while recession hit Europe, Civic Platform gave Poland an important voice in Brussels. This was by no means guaranteed. Poland has narrowly avoided the Hungarian scenario, where xenophobia and Europhobia have entered mainstream politics and democratic institutions look threatened. Still, after eight years in power, it is no surprise that Poles are feeling fatigue.

But alternatives are few.

Duda may seem, objectively, a sensible candidate. But many fear he could prove to be a puppet of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the party leader and Poland’s chief provocateur. When Kaczynski was prime minister and his identical twin, Lech, was president, the conservative elites ruled Warsaw and it and its relationships with neighbors were tense.

The dispute between Poland’s two main parties runs deeper than most in Europe. Splintering among the Solidaritygeneration began almost immediately after the movement led to the downfall of the country’s communist regime. Animosity intensified as Poland joined the European Union and reached a point of no return after the 2010 plane crash that killed President Kaczynski and many high-ranking officials.

In the aftermath of that tragedy, the nation united in grief. But Poles were soon bitterly divided into opposing camps. Today, the rift runs beyond Poland’s political class and divides society itself.

Last week, Komorowski told Poles they face the choice between a “rational and radical Poland.” During the first debate, the moderators questioned both candidates about the “Polish-Polish War,” the internal dispute now preoccupying Poland.

Komorowski accused Duda of radicalism. He cited his challenger’s ambition to ban in vitro fertilization and his efforts to promote the nationalist version of Polish history. For example, Duda has attacked Komorowski for apologizing to the Jewish people for the Poles’ brutal Jedwabne pogrom during the Second World War. Duda has also claimed that Civic Platform irresponsibly categorizes its opponents as radicals.

“They divided us into Hutus and Tutsis,” proclaimed Kukiz, who succeeded in luring many young voters with his rock-star persona and anti-establishment slogans.

As elsewhere in Europe, young Poles are frustrated by a lack of jobs. Unemployment in Poland is well above 10 percent, and earnings remain much lower than the EU average. Young voters are also disenchanted by what they perceive as an out-of-touch political class. The generation born in the late 1980s and early 1990s has been shaped by mass emigration and the global financial crisis — not by the 1989 revolution, the formative event for Warsaw’s political mainstream.

Running as an independent candidate, Kukiz won much of the nationalist electorate. He vowed to “bring our children home from England and Ireland.” In a sensationalist speech from Silesia, he thanked his supporters for resisting media “propaganda” and said he aimed to “reclaim Poland with an entire army.”

Duda and Komorowski, the two candidates to make it to the second round, are now fighting for the votes of Kukiz’s supporters.

The success of populist parties led by charismatic leaders is a trend across Europe, challenging the status quo and often backed by young, marginalized voters. But radical anti-politics quickly becomes dangerous when you share a border with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strongman state.

“Given the situation in our neighborhood,” warned former President Aleksander Kwasniewski, “we need an experienced president, not a presidential experiment.”

The issue of national security has dominated this Polish election. In Poland, as in the Baltic countries, the Ukraine crisis has encroached into domestic politics. Poland is the only EU state that borders both Russia and Ukraine. Moscow’s Crimean annexation and offensive in eastern Ukraine have awoken Poland’s memories of its tragic past of being partitioned by Germany, Russia and Austria, and its later seizure by German and then the Soviet Union.

The issue of foreign policy opened Sunday’s debate. Komorowski reaffirmed that his priorities lie with the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Meanwhile, Duda focused on “national sovereignty” and favoured a more regional approach for Warsaw as he suggested forming a stronger bloc within Central Europe.

Moscow has seemed to relish the shambles of the Polish election. Russian state television told viewers that Komorowski was losing “because of his support for Ukraine and criticism of Russia.” Since the start of the Ukraine crisis, Poland has become the most loathed European country among the Kremlin’s contemporary apparatchiks.

This week’s debates were considered Komorowski’s last chance to win re-election. He used them well. But what was originally expected to be an easy win for Civic Platform now looks too close to call.

If Duda wins, Poles will wake up in a starkly different country next week. And the European Union may have to rethink some of its plans.

Ola Cichowlas is a journalist covering Russia and Eastern Europe.

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