World / Politics

Nationalist makeover extended as Polish President Andrzej Duda wins election

Bloomberg

Poland’s ruling party beat back the biggest threat to its nationalist transformation, with incumbent Andrzej Duda poised to emerge the winner of Sunday’s presidential election.

In near-record turnout, Duda won 51.2 percent, an unassailable lead with more than 99 percent of precincts reporting, the state electoral commission said on Monday. The challenger, Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, hasn’t conceded defeat and his aides spoke of voting "irregularities” and protests on Sunday, when exit polls predicted a closer race.

Duda and his allied Law & Justice party have reshaped Poland from a nation hailed as a model of post-communist change to one battling against the European Union’s democratic values.

With another term, the government could erode the rule of law so much that Poland’s is locked out of the EU mainstream for years. To engineer the victory during the worst economic downturn since the collapse of communism, Duda ramped up his nationalist rhetoric while casting gays, the foreign media as well as Germany as the enemies of Poland.

"Regardless of the final result, we have a completely split country,” said Anna Materska-Sosnowska, a political scientist at Warsaw University.

Financial markets were little moved on Monday, with the zloty weakening 0.2 percent against the euro and Warsaw’s WIG20 stock index gaining 0.3 percent.

Unable to run again, Duda would have little motivation to seek to compromise despite winning by a small margin. After it lost control over parliament’s upper house in last October’s general election, Law & Justice didn’t swerve from its path.

In fact, Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro said on Sunday that the ruling coalition must do more to eliminate the "imbalance” in the country’s media landscape.

During the campaign, the incumbent criticized foreign-owned media for critical coverage. Meanwhile, international election monitors blasted pro-Duda public television for failing in its "legal duty to provide balanced and impartial coverage,” while playing on anti-Semitic themes.

"We must look after the basic mechanisms of democracy, including fair media coverage of what’s happening,” Ziobro told public television. "We can’t close our eyes.”

Trzaskowski’s campaign, which declined to comment on Monday on potential election protests and whether the challenger would concede, did manage to motivate nearly half of the electorate in the face of a revved-up state apparatus seeking to discredit him.

"The big take out from these elections for me is global — that the tide against illiberalism is on the turn,” said Tim Ash, a senior emerging market sovereign strategist at Bluebay Asset Management. Duda’s relatively narrow margin of victory "is telling, given the overwhelming support of the state media.”

Only a few months ago, Duda was cruising for a first-round election victory but the coronavirus outbreak leveled the playing field.

"The high turnout and close to 50 percent backing for a liberal candidate underscore that it’s not inevitable that the illiberals, populists and nationalists are in the ascendancy globally,” Ash said.

The victory sends a difficult message to Brussels and Berlin. Germany pays the biggest chunk of the EU’s bills and Poland is the biggest net beneficiary of the bloc’s funds. While the financial relationship is clear, the ideological drift has been just as apparent.

While occupied by the coronavirus crisis and Brexit, EU leaders have struggled with nationalist governments rejecting its liberal and multicultural agenda.

Duda’s victory may "pave the way for a complete state capture” by Law & Justice, said Piotr Buras and Pawel Zerka of the European Council on Foreign Relations. A second-term for him would allow the government to "dismantle the country’s already damaged system of checks and balances — in a similar way that already happened in Hungary.”

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