Poland is preparing for a year of elections: it will vote in a new president in May before MPs battle it out in the autumn.
Campaigns for the presidential elections, set for May 10, are already in full swing.
Even if the presidential ballot is not of prime importance in the Polish electoral system, it will be a starting position for political parties as they gear up for the parliamentary poll on a date yet-to-be-fixed in the autumn.
It is for this reason the presidential campaign excites a certain interest, with 61 percent of electors intending to vote, according to latest opinion polls.
What is the president’s role?
The Polish head of state is elected by universal suffrage for a five-year term, renewable just once.
Poland is a parliamentary republic, the president’s powers are not very extensive. The role is more as a political and moral authority than managing the affairs of the state. He appoints the prime minister, but, in practice, it’s the leader [of the party or coalition] with the parliamentary majority that has the task of forming a government.
The head of state prompts, nevertheless, legislation and can directly influence by using his or her right to veto. That allows the possibility, for example, of blocking legislation even if the veto can be cancelled by a parliamentary majority of three-fifths.
The head of state is also the commander of the country’s armed forces.
Youth, security and individual freedoms at the centre of election debate
Three themes are dominating Poland’s presidential campaign.
Firstly, due to the country’s demographic crisis and youth unemployment, more and more people are choosing to emigrate, pushing the young generation to the centre of the political debate.
Next there are security issues and Poland’s positioning on the international stage. This attracts a lot of interest from electors, worried by the civil war taking place in neighbouring Ukraine.
Finally, in a country where the church is still very strong, questions around freedom of conscience, such as IVF and abortion, occupy a sizeable place in the election battles.
Will the president be re-elected?
Eleven candidates have put their names forward to be president, but, according to opinion polls, only two of them have realistic hopes of getting to the second round of voting.
The outgoing president, Bronislaw Komorowski (pictured, top left), 62, in office since 2010, is favourite to win. Close to the ruling liberal conservatives, Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO), he benefits from their support without being the party’s candidate, because, as he declared at the start of his campaign, he “wants to be a candidate of all citizens” and “a president who is above political divisions”.
In declaring his willingness to run for another term, he said he was “encouraged by a good perception” of his first five years from the electorate and a “higher level of confidence”, which he has been credited for. He is very popular among his compatriots despite his lack of charisma.
The family and the fight against the demographic crisis; modernisation and improvement of Poland’s economic competitiveness; and the security of the country, based on close cooperation with the European Union and NATO, are the three main axes of his campaign. Poland’s defence minister from 2000/01, Komorowski believes he has the skills and experience to be head of the armed forces.
Polls published at the start of the campaign forecast Komorowski to win 60 percent of the vote, confirming the opinions of certain analysts who think he will have won after the first round of voting on May 10.
Since the polls were published, his main rival, Andrzej Duda, who represents the opposition Law and Justice party, has made up ground on Komorowski
Conservative Duda is Komorowski’s only realistic challenger
Komorowski was initially elected in 2010, after beating Law and Justice (PiS) party candidate Jaroslaw Kaczynski, twin brother of former president Lech Kaczynski, who died in the same year in a plane crash in Russia.
This time round Jaroslaw Kaczynski decided against putting himself forward, instead giving his support to a young, virtually-unknown candidate.
MEP Andrzej Duda (pictured, top right), 42, who presents himself as the “candidate of all Polish patriots”, wants to follow in the path of his mentor Lech Kaczynski, known for his ultra-conservatism and Euroscepticism. But Duda lacks the political experience of Lech Kaczynski and does not have his legitimacy, garnered during his time with the Solidarity union. The programme that Duda puts forward is based primarily on criticism of the ruling coalition’s policies.
Considered by his critics as a third-rate politician, he multiplies his populist promises, often in areas that are not even in the president’s domain. In terms of his foreign policy vision, he does not differ much from the current president.
Duda, backed by a Catholic and conservative electorate, disapproves of progressive legislation proposals involving individual liberties – IVF, abortion and women’s rights – thus cutting himself off from the electorate who occupy the centre ground and are largely in favour of changes in this area.
He must therefore redouble his efforts to compete with the candidate from the Polish Peasant Party (PSL), Adam Jarubas, and try to conquer at least one part of the electorate.
Jarubas, 40, is equally unknown and defines himself as “spokesman of Poland’s provinces”. He is trying to build his electoral capital on Polish fears around a potential conflict with Russia. His campaign is based on strong criticism of the ruling coalition’s foreign policy, despite PSL being part of the government. The electorate would appear unconvinced by him – he is credited with just two percent of the vote.
American political marketing for the post-communist left
Third in the polls is the Democratic Alliance of the Left (Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej, SLD) candidate Magdalena Ogorek (pictured, top middle). The 36-year-old, a specialist in church history, has a limited awareness among electors. Her candidacy surprised and amazed. She was like a rabbit pulled from the hat of party leader Leszek Miller. She was presented as an open candidate to represent a new generation of Poles, progressive and pro-European. The young woman, who looks like a model, appears to be the desperate last card SLD leaders can play to help save an alliance in crisis.
Ogorek’s candidacy contrasts significantly with that of Komorowski where the marketing strategy is concerned, according to observers. The idea of the strategy is to capture the young electorate, with the parliamentary elections later in the year in mind. But the same experts doubt whether this strategy will work, saying it will weaken the vote from her traditional supporters (those over 50), confused by the candidate’s message.
Ogorek, totally lacking political experience and mixing centre-right and left slogans into her campaign, appears implausible. Her populist rhetoric (the rebuilding of Polish laws), her lack of new ideas linked to the values of the left and her dodging of important questions (like the one of separating the church and the state) don’t resemble the traditional left, and contributes to its division
Presidential elections always pull their share of unlikely candidates onto the national stage, giving them an opportunity to promote their political agenda, which had previously been on the margins. This is perhaps the case with singer Pawel Kukiz.
Others include Janusz Palikot, the revelation of the 2010 presidential election, or Janusz Korwin-Mikke, a far-right MEP, who is trying to stay on the political spectrum, despite not having real grassroots support.
It is difficult at the moment to predict if Komorowski will need more than one round of voting to be re-elected. Given the latest opinion polls, nothing is less sure.