Poland’s presidential election: Three battles for the future of Europe

By holding an election that violates fundamental democratic norms, Poland will slip further into the illiberal abyss.

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Poland is Europe’s future – or, at least, the choices the country will soon make force Europe to confront defining questions about itself. Three key battles are playing out on the continent. In the first, democracy and authoritarianism are facing off against each other. The pandemic has opened the way for illiberal overreach: in many European countries, the executive’s instinct is to make a grab for power, at the expense of civil liberties and citizens’ privacy. Even mature democracies could succumb to such temptations.

But, in countries that lack secure democratic foundations, the future of democracy itself is at stake – and Poland is on the brink. Despite the pandemic, the Law and Justice party’s nationalist-populist government is sticking to its plan to hold a presidential election on 10 May.

The party’s goal is to ensure victory for the incumbent, Andrzej Duda. Party managers know that the economic crisis that will follow the peak of the virus is likely to undermine public support for Duda, who faithfully executes the will of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the Law and Justice leader.

While Law and Justice may present the election as the embodiment of democratic values, the exercise makes a mockery of them. There is no campaign to speak of, because the government has banned public meetings for health reasons. Just a few days ahead of the vote changes, Parliament is adjusting the electoral code and the government is seriously discussing an unconstitutional postponement of the vote by just a week or two. In effect, by 6 May, Poles did not know if and how they were supposed to vote the following Sunday. Indeed, only 9 percent of Poles backed a May election, and less than one-third wanted to participate in such a vote.

This is how coronavirus autocracy in Europe starts. By holding an election that violates fundamental democratic norms, Poland will slip further into the abyss. The legitimacy of the president will rightly be in question, and yet another destructive political conflict will begin: in the shadow of the pandemic, Law and Justice is also set to take control of the Supreme Court. This is the institution whose independence has been at the heart of Warsaw’s rule of law dispute with Brussels in the last few years.

The second battle is that against covid-19. This is a battle of narratives. Will the European Union emerge from it basking in the glow of victory – or will nation states seize the glory instead? The framing of this dichotomy is, of course, completely false. Pandemics are no game. And the EU and its member states are not rivals but partners. All first-year European studies students are familiar with Alan Milward’s notion of the EU as able to “rescue of the nation-state” – that the bloc derives a large part of its legitimacy from member states whose welfare, stability, and democratic order are, in turn, best guaranteed within the European framework. Portraying EU politics as a fight between Brussels and national capitals is not only fundamentally wrong but also mortally dangerous for the European project.

Sadly, this is what we see today. “I am convinced that the covid crisis made many people aware of the weakness of the EU, as well as the key role played by the nation states”, commented Kaczynski in a recent interview, making the case for a deep reform of the bloc that would dramatically reduce its ambitions. This view was echoed by Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, who claimed in Parliament that Poland “has not received a single cent from the EU [to fight the virus]”. And the powerful minister of justice, Zbigniew Ziobro, went so far as to say that “the EU compromised itself” in the crisis. As a consequence, the European Commission sent a letter to Warsaw raising concerns about “shortcomings in communication” on the role of the EU financial aid.

Portraying EU politics as a fight between Brussels and national capitals is not only fundamentally wrong but also mortally dangerous for the European project.

The effort to place the EU in opposition to member states only raises the stakes in the third crucial battle: that between two highly polarised visions of the EU. This is a choice between a political project and a loose economic association. In the lead-up to the May 2019 European Parliament election, some researchers identified this as a key divide in European societies – one that is undermining the consensus upon which the EU is based. That risk has returned and is fuelling nationalism.

As an ECFR opinion poll conducted in Poland in April reveals, one of the deepest divides between Poles who support Duda and those who back the democratic opposition is in their attitudes towards Europe. This may seem surprising: support for EU membership is stronger in Poland than in any other member state.

However, deeper questions reveal the extent of this polarisation. Thirty-seven percent of Poles fear that the EU endangers Polish values, while just 31 percent do not. This fear is apparent among just over half of Duda’s supporters. And around 50 percent of opposition supporters believe that EU membership will become more important for Poland in the next few years, but only 23 percent of Duda voters share this view. Nearly two-thirds of the president’s supporters believe that Polish law should always take precedence over the EU law, while almost two-thirds of them believe that the European Court of Justice’s decisions should not automatically apply to Poland. Polish society is split on this issue: a huge majority of opposition supporters want Poland to respect the judgements of Europe’s top court. Sixty percent of Duda supporters primarily count on the Polish state to meet the challenges of today’s world, a role that most opposition supporters reserve for the EU.

These three battles for Europe will undoubtedly galvanise and reinforce one another amid the fallout from the pandemic. The future of the European project will be decided not in Brussels but in European societies. This is why the third conflict – the emerging polarisation between competing visions of the EU – is the most crucial. But it is hard to see how proponents of a strong and sovereign Europe can win this battle if they do not also take up the fight on the other two fronts, where democracy itself is at risk and competing narratives about the coronavirus crisis play out. Today, Poland is the site of all three battles. Who prevails there is a matter for Europe as a whole.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Head, ECFR Warsaw
Senior Policy Fellow

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