Saturday , August 8 2020

High-stakes vote in Poland tests populists’ grip on power

Bloomberg

Poland is voting in a high-stakes presidential election as the coronavirus pandemic tests the populists’ grip on power and threatens one of the biggest nationalist makeovers in the heart of Europe.
In what may be the closest ballot in Poland’s post-communist history, incumbent Andrzej Duda is battling Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski for the presidency in a runoff ballot on Sunday. More than 30 million eligible voters can cast their ballots until 9pm CET (3pm EST), when an exit poll will be published by the country’s three main television stations.
Duda’s presidential victory in 2015, a month before Donald Trump launched his election campaign, marked the start of a series of events that would sweep the Law & Justice party into power with its promise to kick out the “elites” and stand up to the European Union.
But in a warning sign for populists across the EU and the Atlantic, the pandemic and its economic fallout are changing the political calculus.
“The pandemic showed that simple answers by populists are lacking credibility,” said Piotr Buras, head of the Warsaw bureau of the European Council on Foreign Relations, or ECFR. “At first it seemed the pandemic would blow wind in the sails of populists, but the reality turned out to be reverse.”

Deep Split
The deep split was on display in Rawa Mazowiecka, a town about 80 kilometres (50 miles) southwest of Warsaw,
where truck driver Tadeusz Kolodziejski, 61, said that life in Poland is “clearly better” now than five years ago due to unprecedented social-spending programs.
Anna Elster, a 38-year-old English teacher who lived in the UK for years, was worried that never-ending political battles will push Poland out of the EU.
“My life is generally going well here, but I can’t believe we’re so backward-looking, so judgmental about others and everything is so politicised. I only hope we won’t lose our EU membership.”
Before the outbreak, Duda was cruising for re-election, with record low unemployment and Law & Justice in control of the public narrative after winning a second term in parliamentary elections in October. After a visit to the White House, the incumbent came out on top in the first round on June 28, though without the majority needed to avoid another ballot.
In Poland, as in the US, the leadership has doubled down on its culture war, and Duda has the support of public broadcasters. He hurled insults at Germany, independent journalists, took a swipe at mandatory vaccinations and promised not to give in to Jewish demands for compensation for property lost during World War II.

Game Changer
But the coronavirus is proving to be a game-changer. While the Polish economy is forecast to shrink the least among the European Union’s 27 countries, the crisis is making Polish citizens more skeptical of its own government and more pro EU, according to a survey by the ECFR.
That’s bad news for Law & Justice, whose government has been repeatedly sued by the EU for undermining judicial independence and the rule of law. Coal-reliant Poland is also the bloc’s only nation not to sign up for its goal of carbon neutrality by the middle of this century.
Should Trzaskowski, also 48, prevail this weekend, it would send a message to Brussels and Berlin that Poland still has one foot in the European mainstream at the critical time for the continent.

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