In Erich Maria Remarque’s famous novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, the title is intended to be ironic. The daily slaughter of WWI trench warfare was such that if “only” a few thousand people were killed on a given day, the news would report it as uneventful. As we reach the climax of a tumultuous presidential election in Poland, I have a similar feeling. For five years I’ve been writing the same story: the governing Law and Justice party (PiS) constitutes an existential threat to constitutional democracy and the rule of law, only a minority of Poles approve of what they are doing, they will likely win yet another election anyway, and the results will be catastrophic. The war of Poland against Poland continues—all quiet on the eastern front.
At first glance, the results of the first round of the presidential elections last Sunday, June 28, appeared to be a decisive victory for the incumbent, Andrzej Duda (PiS). At second glance, one can see reason for the leading opposition candidate Rafał Trzaskowski (the center-right Civic Platform, or PO), to be hopeful. At third glance, the sense of doom returns.
Duda’s victory in round one was decisive: with 43.5% of the vote, he was far ahead of the 30.5% that Trzaskowski received. If we assume that turnout in the second round is the same as the first round, then Duda needs to get another 1,262,218 votes in order to get past 50%, while Trzaskowski would have to find more than three times as many: 3,795,391. Despite that imbalance, however, Duda might face the more difficult challenge. Nearly all of the 2,693,397 votes that went to the third-place candidate, Szymon Hołownia, will go to Trzaskowski. In fact, Hołownia has already endorsed his former rival, despite having once compared the difference between the PiS and PO candidates as “between having one’s house burn down and breaking one’s arm.” The candidate of the Left, Robert Biedroń, has also urged his supporters to vote for Trzaskowski, though this would only add a meager 432,129 people to the PO candidate’s total. Most of those who identified with the Left already cast their ballots for Trzaskowski in round one, thanks to Biedroń’s lackluster and at times inept campaign. Meanwhile, none of the eliminated candidates will endorse Duda, who has a very strong base with PiS supporters but very little beyond that. If we add up all the votes of the opposition, and all those that went to Duda, then it becomes clear that the PiS government is quite far from a majority.
But then comes our third glance. Among those who voted for losing candidates in the first round, there are almost two million whose views and values are not represented by either Duda or Trzaskowski. Władysław Kosiniak-Kamisz was the candidate of the agrarian party, PSL. The 459,365 votes he received in the first round came as a crushing blow, considering that back in April it seemed plausible (albeit unlikely) that he would make it to the second round. The PSL is bitterly opposed to PiS, since both compete for the same rural voters. On the other hand, those who vote for PSL might not feel that same rivalry. They tend to be devout Catholics, and thus unlikely to support a cosmopolitan, urban figure like Trzaskowski. During the campaign, Duda has leaned heavily into his homophobic worldview, expressing views that have elicited an outspoken denunciation from around the world. In response he said that he could not be homophobic, because “in the presidential palace I am often visited by people who have a different sexual orientation than mine. That is not the slightest problem for me.” While such lines provoke derision in Warsaw, Poznań, Wrocław, and Gdańsk, his earlier claim that LGBT rights were “worse than Bolshevism” and his description of sex ed as “experimenting on children” could earn him some support from a portion of the PSL electorate.
An even bigger wild card is the fourth-place candidate, Krzysztof Bosak, who represents a new party called Konfederacja. As the name suggests, it is an alliance of several small far-far-right movements. Bosak offers a nationalist, xenophobic, antisemitic, misogynistic, and homophobic intolerance that goes beyond what even PiS would accept. They oppose PiS because they think the current government is insufficiently resolute, but Konfederacja voters would seem to be a likely source of extra votes for Duda. However, another tone within the discordant cacophony that is Konfederacja consists of radical libertarians. They look upon PiS as fundamentally unacceptable because of the generous social welfare programs that have been introduced in the past five years. As Bosak said after the first round, “Andrzej Duda uses free-market slogans, but he has signed 30 laws that have raised taxes.” To put this in American terms, Duda is akin to Steve Bannon, while Bosak is more like Rand Paul. Aside from these ideological differences, Bosak understands that if his small party is to have a future, PiS has to lose. Only if Jarosław Kaczyński is dethroned as the leader of the right will there be space for alternative right-wing parties This helps explain why pre-election surveys found that fewer than two thirds of Bosak’s voters would support Duda in round two.
If we put all these numbers together we get around 9.3 million votes for Duda…and around 9.3 million votes for Trzaskowski. Ensuring that their supporters get to the polls will be crucial for both candidates, and in this regard the well-oiled party machinery of PiS gives them a distinct advantage. On the other hand, Poland’s worsening COVID crisis will be a major problem for a party that draws its support disproportionately among older voters. If the election were just dependent on votes of people under 30, then Trzaskowski would win by almost 5%, but if only those over 60 voted, Duda would win by almost 30%. If those with just an elementary school education picked the winner, then Duda would get over 70%, but if just those with higher education voted, his total would fall to 26%. If we assume that those with more education are more likely to participate in the election, then Trzaskowski will have an advantage. It’s going to come down to a very small number of votes, one way or the other.