Warsaw, Poland – On Sunday, voters across Poland will cast ballots in a hotly contested presidential election that could shake up the country’s political order.
Since 2015, Poland has been governed by the socially conservative and economically statist Law and Justice (PiS) party, with a presidential ally in tandem.
The incumbent President Andrzej Duda, who ends a term speckled with controversy, will face the toughest fight of his political career this weekend, as the liberal opposition tries to weaken PiS’s grip on the country.
Here are five things to know.
Duda, 48, appeared to be comfortably ahead of his rivals in the first months of the coronavirus pandemic as he spearheaded the national response to the health emergency. But his convincing poll lead has since narrowed as the country emerged from its lockdown and campaigning resumed.
Opinion polls currently have Duda leading with 43 percent of the vote. This, however, will not suffice for an outright win. If no candidate wins an absolute majority in the first round, the two frontrunners will meet for a likely runoff on July 12.
Duda’s most spirited challenger is Rafał Trzaskowski, the liberal mayor of the capital, Warsaw. He is polling at 29 percent and is most likely to meet Duda for the rematch in two weeks, where some recent runoff polls have him winning.
While Duda’s strength comes from his association with the popular social spending pledges carried out by the PiS government, he has also been criticised as rubber-stamping a number of its more controversial bills, which have sparked mass protests and attracted criticism from the European Union.
To win, Duda will have to mobilise his support base of small-town provincial Poland, which since the onset of his presidency he has been cultivating by becoming the first ever president to visit all 380 counties in Poland.
Much, however, will depend on how many turn out for him. In a recent turnout drive, Poland’s interior ministry promised small communes with each province’s highest voter turnout brand new firefighter trucks.
Duda faces five main challengers, spanning from the left to the far-right of Poland’s political scene.
The pro-Europe Trzaskowski, hailing from the centrist Civic Platform (PO) party, has surged in support since joining the presidential race in mid-May.
“Trzaskowski has presented himself as a fighter,” said Ewa Marciniak, a political scientist at the University of Warsaw. “His strength is his authentic belief that the election can be won, even when up against the incumbent president.”
Next up, with 11 percent support in polls, is political newcomer and independent candidate Szymon Hołownia, a former journalist and TV presenter. His ease with cameras and media savviness helped him gain traction during the pandemic, when much of campaigning moved online.
“Without political structures, he has very effectively used social media,” said Marciniak, noting Hołownia’s daily live broadcasts.
Trailing behind at 7 percent is Krzysztof Bosak of the far-right Confederation (Konfederacja) party, followed by Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz, leader of the agrarian Polish People’s Party (PSL) and Robert Biedron, a member of European Parliament from the Left (Lewica) coalition, both with 4 percent votes.
The election had originally been scheduled for May 10, but it was abandoned after the government failed to push through a postal voting bill in time. The vote formally went ahead but polling stations stayed shut, leading Poland’s election authority to swiftly declare the ghost vote void.
A new election was then ordered, allowing the opposition to install Trzaskowski in place of its previous candidate, Małgorzata Kidawa-Błonska, whose support plunged to 5 percent after she called on her supporters to boycott.
Yet, worries about the legality of the election remain. According to Polish law, the electoral code – which was amended in June to include optional postal voting – should not be changed in the six months before elections are announced.
There are also concerns about the election’s universality. In a number of countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany, Poles will only be able to cast ballots by post, with early reports of some local postal services having trouble catering to the tight electoral schedule.
In six countries – Venezuela, Peru, Chile, Kuwait, Afghanistan and North Korea – Poles will not be able to vote at all.
On Wednesday, US President Donald Trump welcomed Duda as the first foreign dignitary to walk into the White House since the outbreak of the pandemic.
The overhyped meeting, which according to commentators was meant to underscore Poland’s close ties with the US, turned out a bit of a damp squib. Talks on increasing the US’s military presence in Poland and imparting US technology to build the European country’s first nuclear energy plant did not produce any concrete commitments.
“I do believe he has an election coming up, and I do believe he will be successful,” Trump said, perhaps as a bitter sweetener, as he spoke in the Rose Garden after the inconclusive bilateral talks.
“This is a desperate search for opportunities to show initiative,” commented Jarosław Flis, a professor of sociology at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. However, he called the strategy “questionable” as an alternative to gathering support on the ground just four days before the election.
Moreover, the visit raised several eyebrows, both at home and abroad. The chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engel, has called the timing of the visit “highly inappropriate”. Trzaskowski, meanwhile, issued an open letter calling for greater transparency about the goals of the visit.
In the final stretch of the campaign, Duda has also veered into a discussion on gay rights, by unveiling a “Family Charter” in which he pledged to “defend children from LGBT ideology”, despite indicating he would sign a law introducing same-sex civil partnerships earlier this year.
“Especially in the midst of a pandemic and economic crisis, social security really plays on the minds of voters,” explained Tomasz Słomka, a political scientist at the University of Warsaw. “That explains why candidates have pushed such topics.”
Poland’s presidency is largely ceremonial, but it does come with some notable powers, including the use of veto.
An opposition president could block bills proposed by the PiS party, which currently lacks the three-fifths parliamentary majority needed to overturn the presidential veto. This could loosen the governing party’s grip on power, which has already slipped with the opposition taking back the Senate in last year’s parliamentary election.
“The opposition candidates have introduced the problem of the president’s pen,” says Marciniak. “Namely, whether the president should be signing everything the parliament passes to him, or more generally, how yielding should the president be to the will of the parliamentary majority.”
However, with Duda re-elected, the government would have a three-year run left to push through its laws. It is likely to continue its controversial overhaul of the judiciary , which will firmly set the gaze of Brussels on the unruly member state.
The government will also have the green light to undertake its long-promised media reforms. Despite subjugating the state broadcaster and radio in recent years, the incumbents have called for a further redress of Poland’s media landscape which they claim is dominated by liberal outlets.
“The resolution of the election will be very important,” Flis told Al Jazeera. “If Duda defends his position, the ruling camp will feel more assured. We can then expect more radical moves to finish its reforms.”