I cannot recall an election in my lifetime that hasn’t been described as a turning point, with the very future of life-as-we-know-it at stake. Sunday’s presidential elections in Poland are no exception, but in reality the potential disaster is much greater for one side than the other.
For supporters of liberal constitutional democracy, there is a chance that Sunday will bring the end (or at least the beginning of the end) of a long nightmare. If the liberal mayor of Warsaw, Rafał Trzaskowski, wins the presidency, the monopoly on power enjoyed since 2015 by Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS) will come to an end. They would still control the government, the lower house of parliament, the courts, the police, and the public media—so there’s that. But the president could henceforth veto legislation and delay or even block a whole range of appointments. In a normal political system this would be a setback but not a defeat, but we are not talking about a normal political system.
Kaczyński is not likely to earn a “plays well with others” badge. Ideologically he is an admirer of Carl Schmitt (as demonstrated here, here, here, here, here and complicated somewhat here), and he sees politics as a battle for power between “us” and “them,” in which constitutional constraints are irrelevant. One of his favorite terms is “imposibilizm,” which he uses to refer to the claim that certain things cannot be done merely because they are illegal or unconstitutional. He does not consider politics to be a space for compromise, deliberation, and consensus; instead it a battle in which rivals are subordinated and the will of the leader is established. He labels expressions of dissent in parliament as the ravings of a “chamska hołota” (roughly “redneck rabble”) and he recently argued that Poland requires a “national agreement” that would silence an opposition that merely “defends the old order, defends the privileges of the so-called elite, and longs to subordinate Polish interests to foreign influence.” He has demonstrated again and again that he cannot tolerate politicians who treat him as an equal and question his decisions. He doesn’t care about specific policies but about building of a system in which the principle of leadership will reign. Passing this or that piece of legislation is meaningless for him if it can only be achieved through negotiation and compromise.
Given Kaczyński’s worldview, it is unlikely that he will long tolerate a system of divided government, and if Trzaskowski wins on Sunday, there’s a good chance that snap parliamentary elections will follow. Andrzej Duda has been the ideal president for Kaczyński, because Duda has virtually no power-base of his own and cannot act independently. In fact, he is so isolated, personally as well as politically, that it is unclear what he might be able to do with his life after the presidency. The fact that I’ve made it this far in this essay without mentioning Duda’s name is not an accident: calling him a puppet of Kaczyński is an insult to the agency of marionettes. Needless to say, Trzaskowski would not be so obedient, so a victory for the opposition in Sunday’s elections would be intolerable to Kaczyński. We have to add to this the psychological component. Jarosław Kaczyński continues to believe that his late twin brother, Lech Kaczyński, was destined by History to hold the presidency, and even Duda’s occupation of that post is painful for him. A representative of the “redneck rabble” would be unbearable.
So Trzaskowski’s victory would likely start a cascade of political crises. It won’t be pretty, and I would never bet against Kaczyński’s ruthlessness when it comes to a struggle for power. The only certainty is that a system of divided government will not function if Kaczyński is one of the players.
The deeper problem for PiS is that even a victory by Duda will not resolve much. There have been abundant signs of internal conflict among supporters of the government, and even clearer indications that PiS will never establish a cultural hegemony in Poland that will match its political power. Kaczyński’s authoritarian peers, like Viktor Orbán or Vladimir Putin, control not only their country’s institutions, but they have used that position to build strong majorities of public support. Kaczyński remains the most distrusted politician in the country, with a disapproval rating of 66%. He actually manages to make Donald Trump (with a mere 55.8% disapproval rating) look popular. This has always been so; the success of PiS has depended on his ability to hide from public view and convince voters that his puppets are independent political leaders (which they are not). Now, with the economy in deep trouble and with Poland the only European country (aside from Sweden) that has failed to suppress the coronavirus, PiS would be very unlikely to repeat the thin parliamentary victory it achieved last October.
The vote this Sunday will be extraordinarily close. The most sophisticated statistical modeling shows that Trzaskowski’s likely result will be between 48.49 and 52.82% while Duda’s will be between 47.18% and 51.51%. This gives Trzaskowski an 80.3% chance of victory. Most pundits, meanwhile, think that Duda has a slight edge. I suspect that both of these prognoses are correct: Trzaskowski is likely to win slightly more votes, but Duda has an edge because PiS controls the voting process. Explicit fraud will be hard for them to pull off, but small-scale “irregularities” reinforced by a compliant judiciary—that’s well within their ability.
A victory by the opposition would be perceived as a catastrophic, even apocalyptic result for Kaczyński and his die-hard supporters. And they would be right: divided government has no place in their political universe. A victory for Duda, meanwhile, would be a blow for the opposition, but it might not prevent the unraveling of PiS rule.