Maciej Kisilowski is associate professor of law and strategy at Central European University in Vienna.
In the weeks leading up to Sunday’s runoff election, Poland’s neck-and-neck presidential race between the right-wing incumbent, Andrzej Duda, and his progressive opponent, Warsaw’s Mayor Rafał Trzaskowski, seemed to many a sign that the populist tide was beginning to turn.
Trzaskowski’s narrow defeat — 48.79 percent to Duda’s 51.21 percent — is a clear indication these hopes were premature. It also highlights the huge challenge democrats face when going into battle against entrenched populists.
Considering that the challenger was up against a powerful state media apparatus controlled by the ruling party as well as constraints on campaigning and rallies imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, Trzaskowski’s team ran one of the most impressive campaigns in post-1989 Poland.
Trzaskowski — a youthful, photogenic polyglot who emphasized middle-of-the-road family values — approached voters with refreshing humility. His message was one of unity and hope, and in villages and towns across the country, he reassured people he intended to work constructively with the government even as he vowed to provide necessary checks and balances in an increasingly authoritarian political system.
These election results are a death blow to Poland’s liberal democracy.
The contrast to Duda could not have been greater: The president played on people’s fears and anger, and his campaign accused the opposition of betraying Poles for the benefit of the LGBT community, Germany, Russia and Jews.
Trzaskowski’s defeat is a reminder that running a slick, progressive campaign is not enough to prevail over a state apparatus controlled by populists.
Duda eked out a victory, paving the way for the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party to pursue its authoritarian agenda until the next nationwide ballot in 2023. Given how narrow Duda’s victory was, the party is very likely to accelerate its attempts to take over the judiciary, destroy any remaining independent media and subjugate local governments that don’t toe the party line.
These election results are a death blow to Poland’s liberal democracy. To those fighting populism around the world, they should also be a cautionary tale.
To return a country to a democratic path and loosen populists’ hold on state institutions, a challenger needs more than a Trzaskowski-style campaign. Three other conditions must be met.
First, the opposition needs to unite. In Poland, Trzaskowski — a leading figure in Civic Platform, the largest anti-PiS party — faced four other presidential contenders from the opposition.
Since Polish presidential elections follow the French-style two-round model, those other candidates were eliminated from the race in the first vote in June. But bruised egos and political calculations prevented those opposition leaders from forcefully backing Trzaskowski before the runoff vote.
Second, the opposition needs to present a compelling alternative that takes populist voters seriously. Trzaskowski’s talk of unity and respect for “ordinary Poles” on the campaign trail was a great first step and the main reason he got closer to defeating PiS than anyone before him. But he was still unwilling to go any further to reassure and address the fears and prejudices of the PiS electorate.
On no hot-button issue did Trzaskowski — a committed Warsaw progressive — follow the example of opposition politicians elsewhere and make a strategic decision to reach across the ideological divide.
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, a social democrat, defeated the far-right Danish People’s Party in 2019 by borrowing aspects of its anti-immigrant rhetoric, for example. In New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern governs thanks to a Faustian bargain with the populist New Zealand First party.
Fundamentally, Trzaskowski failed to realize just how deeply right-wing populism has altered the political landscape and that he cannot hope to come to power without making a meaningful compromise to the other side of the debate.
Democrats around the world should take note: To defeat populists, you need more than an attractive candidate and a strong campaign.
Third, the election shows that, in a country on the path to autocracy, effective opposition can only happen via established political parties. The fact that the race was so close confirms just how important reliable party structures, staff and financing are to waging an effective campaign.
Nothing was more damaging to Trzaskowski’s prospects than the grotesquely misguided independent campaign of a centrist Catholic TV presenter, Szymon Hołownia, who ran on a vague promise to end the “Polish-Polish war” between PiS and Trzaskowski’s Civic Platform.
After months of campaigning and spending millions of euros raised from naïve private donors, Hołownia gained less than 13.87 percent of votes in the first round, compared to Trzaskowski’s 30.46 percent and Duda’s 43.5 percent. All Hołownia achieved was to split the opposition vote, depriving Trzaskowski of powerful momentum and wasting the scarce energy and resources of people fed up with the ruling party.
Democrats around the world should take note: To defeat populists, you need more than an attractive candidate and a strong campaign. You need strong ideas that address the new political landscape and politicians courageous enough to work together to deliver on them.
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