Polls open in Poland in presidential election that may prove turning point

By Linus Hoeller

Title image: a man looks at a list of PiS scandals on display outside the presidential palace in the week leading up to the election. (Linus Hoeller / The World Uncensored)

Update June 29th, 07 UTC: Polling stations closed at 9 pm Sunday evening, after which an exit poll was released, showing Duda as the likely winner of this election, scoring 41.8%, according to Ipsos. Trzaskowski came in at 30.4%. This means that there will be a runoff election in two weeks.

Polish citizens are heading to the polls Sunday in the first round of a likely two-round election which will determine their country’s president for the next five years. The election had previously been postponed in a constitutionally questionable manner due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Since then, the incumbent president Andrzej Duda of the far-right, populist Law & Justice (PiS) party has seen a new, serious challenger arise from the opposition.

Rafał Trzaskowski, the candidate of the main opposition party Civic Coalition (KO), replaced a previous, highly unpopular candidate and has since surged nearly 30 percentage points in pre-election surveys. In doing so, he has shaped up to be President Duda’s main challenger.

If any of the 11 candidates campaigning for the presidency wins more than 50% of the votes in the first round of the election, he will become the new president of Poland. In the more likely case that none of the candidates clears that bar, there will be a runoff election between the top two candidates, which is scheduled to be held on 12th of July.

Pre-election surveys, which were prohibited from being published from Saturday onward due to “electoral silence,” see incumbent president Duda comfortably in the lead, polling at around 41%. His challenger Trzaskowski, who only entered the race a few weeks back, comes in at just over 30%. Other candidates trail behind considerably.

Independent observers have pointed out that some aspects of the election may not fully fulfill the requirements for it to be considered “fair and equal,” pointing, among other things, to the ruling Law and Justice party’s control over the state-run media, which has been transformed into a pro-PiS propaganda machine and actively campaigned on behalf of Duda.

Other questions remain, such as whether moving the election was a legal thing to do, or not. Poland had not – despite urged by many opposition parties to do so – declared a state of natural emergency, which would have allowed for the elections to be moved. Instead, two members of parliament – Jarosław Kaczyński, the highly influential leader of PiS, and a sidekick of his – decided not to hold the election as initially scheduled.

Sunday’s election is widely expected to result in a runoff election between incumbent president Duda and his main challenger, Trzaskowski. This comes just a few weeks after it looked likely that Duda would win the election with an absolute majority in the first round. His recent slump in polls and the opposition’s rise is sure to have sounded alarm bells within the nationalist, conservative and euroskeptic PiS, which has been holding onto power in the country for half a decade.

Over its rule, PiS has eroded the independence of the courts, brought the state media under its control and weakened the democratic institutions in the country, drawing criticism and scolding from human rights organizations, the EU and the OSCE.

The Polish president holds more powers than most of his European counterparts, for the country is a semi-presidential republic, inspired – following the fall of Communism – by the French and American systems. One of the president’s most important powers is to veto or sign off on legislation which is passed on to him from the country’s two chambers of parliament.

Although the opposition holds a slim majority in the upper house, as of now, Law & Justice controls both the lower house and the presidency. Though the upper house can delay legislation, this can ultimately be overridden by the lower chamber, meaning that under the current system, PiS is able to rule largely unhindered.

This summer’s elections may therefore prove a crucial turning point. If an opposition candidate were to win the presidency, this would for the first time provide a significant check on the power of PiS. As of now, the polls for the second round see Duda and Trzaskowski head to head, both polling at roughly 50%.

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