Despite the largely ceremonial role that the president plays in the Polish political system, the outcome of the Sunday’s election is very significant. After five years in office, the seemingly popular Bronisław Komorowski has lost to a little-known, albeit backed by the leading opposition party, Member of the European Parliament, Andrzej Duda.
The scale of Komorowski’s defeat is truly astounding. While his result is only a few percentage points behind that of Duda’s, just a few months ago such an outcome would have seemed extraordinarily unlikely. Unlike his adversary, Komorowski had the advantages of strong ratings, unconditional support from the government and the ruling party, and a solid track record of five years of smooth, even if uninspiring, presidency. In this context his defeat signals a growing dissatisfaction with both some elements of his political strategy and with his allies at the ruling Civic Platform party.
Komorowski became the president following the tragic death of his predecessor, Lech Kaczyński. Lech Kaczyński, supported by his twin brother and the conservative opposition leader Jarosław Kaczyński, became known as a polarising president, whose time in office was characterised by conflicts with the ruling Civic Platform and its leader, now the president of the European Council, Donal Tusk. In contrast, Komorowski’s presidency has largely been seen as uneventful and conciliatory, not least because of his close links to the ruling party. Komorowski has been firmly committed to what the Polish media call “warm water politics”: the avoidance of any potential conflicts and focus on simple, day-to-day administration of public life.
Throughout the five years of his presidency, Komorowski became known as a mildly conservative politician. He has made a virtue out of his lack of leadership or charisma and strict adherence to the socio-cultural status quo when it comes to such controversial matters as the interpretations of the country’s painful history, gay marriage, drug legalization, abortion or state-church relations. Similarly, despite his personal involvement in the anti-communist opposition, throughout his presidency, Komorowski has appointed the representatives of the full political spectrum (including former communists) as his advisors. He has attempted to reach out to all political parties, including the Kaczynski’s Law and Justice, which has remained the only political party openly hostile to his presidency.
This conciliatory approach proved to be very popular in the aftermath of Kaczyński’s turbulent presidency. By carefully avoiding upsetting any interests or challenging any opinions Komorowski has managed to attain high approval ratings. According to a November 2014 poll, 76% of the respondents thought positively of his presidency. At the same time, his lack of clear vision has meant that unlike more charismatic politicians, Komorowski has lacked strongly committed supporters. As the Sunday election results proved, not being despised by most of the voters was not sufficient to win the elections in the face of fading memories of the turbulent Kaczyński’s presidency and deepening fatigue over Civic Platform’s long rule.
The ruling party is widely credited for successfully navigating Poland through the economic crisis in Europe (Poland has been the only EU country not to experience recession after the 2008 meltdown) and for strengthening the country’s international standing. At the same time, it too has been accused of adopting “warm water politics” and avoiding any significant economic or social reforms in order to stay in power. While the country’s economic growth has been impressive (with Poland now boasting a higher standard of living than some of the old EU countries), critics point to high emigration and unemployment and argue that the Civic Platform should have used the period of relative prosperity to address such issues as the unsustainable pension system, costly privilages to particular groups of interests (e.g. miners and farmers), overly-complex fiscal system and often dysfunctional buearocracy.
The public frustration led to an unexpected outcome in the first round of the election. Despite all the predictions based on Komorowski’s high approval ratings two-thirds of the voters backed either Andrzej Duda or one of the anti-establishment candidates, such as the former rock star-turned politician Paweł Kukiz who surprisingly won 20% of the votes. The left was the biggest loser of the first round with Magdalena Ogórek from the Democratic Left Alliance (former communist party) and Janusz Palikot from Twój Ruch (Poland’s most socially progressive political party) scoring 2.38% and 1.42% respectively. This result confirms that the Polish political scene remains firmly dominated by more conservative or right-wing options.
In spite of performing worse in the presidential debate that preceded the second round, Andrzej Duda managed to capture much of the anti-establishment vote and to secure a majority. While throughout the campaign Duda made a significant number of very costly (and highly unrealistic) promises to virtually everyone, his victory seems to be mainly due to voters expressing their fatigue over Komorowski’s lack of clear vision and frustration with his allies at the ruling party.
The limited powers awarded to the president by the Polish constitution make it unlikely that Duda will be able to have a significant impact on policy, at least as long as the Civic Platform dominates the parliament. However, the outcome of this election is highly significant in the context of the upcoming parliamentary elections. If Duda proves to be a competent candidate and a meaningful counter-balance to the Civic Platform’s current power, his presidency may help his Law and Justice Party to return to power. This would likely mean a change in the direction of reduced enthusiasm for deepening European integration and greater conservatism at home. At the same time, if Duda, just like Lech Kaczyński, becomes a highly polarising figure, this will increase the chances of the Civic Platform to secure another 4 years in power.
*A term popularized by Donald Tusk in 2010 who claimed that he prefers policies that in their aims do not go beyond getting everyone “warm tap water” (i.e. very basic economic comfort) than great visions that often lead to political or economic disasters.
Image of the Polish Presidential Palace in Warsaw: Cezary Piwowarski