The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Poland’s ruling party might not win Sunday’s first-round presidential election

The campaign season has been full of surprises

People walk their dogs as they pass campaign posters for Andrzej Duda, right, Poland’s incumbent president and leader of the Law and Justice party; and opposition candidate Rafal Trzaskowski in a suburb of Warsaw on June 25. (Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty Images)

Poland’s most unusual presidential campaign is finally nearing its end. The election, originally scheduled for May 10, was postponed at the last minute because of the pandemic. The first round will now take place on Sunday.

The election takes place after five years of democratic backsliding under President Andrzej Duda and his nationalistic Law and Justice (PiS) party. Among a range of illiberal policies, the party has restricted judicial independence and exerted control over public media.

But the biggest surprise in this election year was the late entry of opposition candidate Rafal Trzaskowski into the race, which has brought LGBT rights to the fore in this predominantly Catholic country.

The May postponement was chaotic

When the May 10 election date was announced in early February, Duda was clearly leading in the polls. His strongest opponent was Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska of the Civic Coalition (KO), a centrist electoral alliance consisting of the Civic Platform (PO) and several smaller parties.

Kidawa-Blonska was trailing Duda by roughly 20 percentage points until mid-March, when Poland implemented its covid-19 lockdown. The lockdown included a ban on mass gatherings, making it difficult for the opposition to campaign. Kidawa-Blonska’s poll numbers slipped, and Duda used the pandemic crisis and related media coverage to present himself as a compassionate leader.

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Duda had a strong lead in the polls in late March, and the PiS-controlled government refused to declare a state of natural disaster, which would have postponed the election. To protest the government’s insistence on going ahead with the May 10 election despite the pandemic, Kidawa-Blonska announced that she would boycott the election. This demobilized her supporters, and Duda skyrocketed in the polls. It appeared he would get more than the 50 percent threshold to win in the first round of the presidential election.

The campaign resumed, with a new candidate

Ultimately, just days before the May 10 election, a political rift in the government and the intervention of the opposition-controlled Senate forced PiS to postpone the election. The new election law recognized all candidates registered for May 10 but also made it possible for new candidates to run. The KO used this opportunity to drop Kidawa-Blonska, whose campaign flopped after the boycott announcement, and instead bring in Trzaskowski, the charismatic mayor of Warsaw.

The nomination of Trzaskowski looked like a risky decision because of his association with the liberal wing of the centrist KO. As mayor of Warsaw, he launched a program aimed at protecting LGBT youth, especially minors who become suicidal following harassment and bullying. Trzaskowski’s selection as the KO nominee prompted protest from PiS supporters, who warned of promoting a “homosexual propaganda.”

From the PiS perspective, Trzaskowski’s policies on LGBT rights looked like a way to brand him as a radical and deprive him of support from Poland’s more conservative voters. With the support of PiS-controlled public media, Duda launched an attack on the LGBT community, saying that “LGBT is not people, it’s an ideology” and claiming that the “LGBT ideology” is worse than communism.

Despite support from the Catholic Church, most prominently the Archbishop of Kraków, Duda’s strategy backfired. Independent media outlets and influential, politically neutral celebrities criticized his attack on gay rights. Amid the pandemic, with new coronavirus cases reported at a consistent rate, Duda’s anti-LGBT campaign looked like an attempt to divert attention from the mounting health and economic crises.

The lead-up to election day

Duda’s homophobic comments and the public outcry against them marked a turning point in the campaign. The figure below shows how Trzaskowski’s support in public opinion polls has increased from the mid-teens to roughly 30 percent, while Duda has polled consistently between 40 to 45 percent over the past month.

Here’s what this means: It appears unlikely that any candidate will win over 50 percent of the vote on Sunday, which will trigger a second-round runoff election on July 12 between the top two vote-getters.

Public opinion polls of a possible second-round match between Duda and Trzaskowski suggest Trzaskowski’s appeal has been rising over the course of the campaign. The figure below shows the two candidates’ support converging over the past month to what is now a virtual tie.

Perhaps reflecting concern that Duda might not win reelection, Polish public TV has featured anti-Semitic themes recently, accusing Trzaskowski of paying for Jewish claims in Poland with money dedicated for child benefits — benefits that PiS introduced in 2016. This strategy is targeted at supporters of the far-right candidate Krzysztof Bosak. If the election goes to a second round, Duda will need to mobilize Bosak’s voters.

Duda’s meeting with President Trump at the White House on June 24 — just days before the first round of the election — was another attempt to boost his support. During the meeting, Duda reportedly asked for an increase in the number of U.S. troops stationed in Poland. Trump also gave tacit support for the incumbent Duda — prompting one former diplomat to criticize the “endorsement masquerading as a meeting.”

Current polls suggest that no candidate will secure the 50 percent needed to win the presidency in Sunday’s first-round election. It appears likely that front-runners Duda and Trzaskowski will face off in the July 12 second-round election.

In the second-round campaign, both candidates will work to win over voters who supported other candidates in the first round. Duda has an advantage here, because his party controls public media and is supported by the Catholic Church. But Trzaskowski’s rise in the polls during his short campaign has created momentum. If this momentum continues, he might manage to beat Duda, despite the PiS policies that have limited free and fair political competition over the past five years.

Kamil Marcinkiewicz is a lecturer of political science and research methods at the University of Hamburg. His research focuses on voting behavior, elections and legislative politics.

Mary Stegmaier is the interim vice provost for international programs and an associate professor in the Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri. Her research focuses on voting behavior, elections, forecasting and political representation.

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