Polish Elections: Homophobia, Corona and the Future of Democracy

The big day is coming – this Sunday Poles will vote in the first round of presidential elections. Three months ago, no one could have anticipated what we are experiencing now. Amid the coronavirus pandemic and major political shifts in Europe, the dynamics of political conflict in Poland have been redefined. Whoever the ultimate winner will be, the consequences of a heated presidential race will last for many months.

To say that the campaign was eventful is an understatement: we had an unprecedented non-election in early May; the first split in the government after five years of stability; the European Parliament’s commission expressing concern about the functioning of the Polish electoral system; a populist catholic showman surging in the polls, only to lose almost everything within two weeks; the unpopular candidate of the biggest oppositional party replaced and her successor instantly becoming a front-runner; the incumbent president having a “spectacular” moment in media all-around the globe after he said that “LGBT ideology is worse than neobolshevism” and, finally, Donald Trump inviting the Polish president to the White House as a first foreign leader after the pandemic. How did we arrive at this place?

Elections in the hands of the postman

The story of Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) “conservative revolution” began with the surprising presidential victory of Andrzej Duda in 2015. After five years and four electoral victories (two parliamentary, European and local) the party led by Jarosław Kaczyński expected that the presidential elections, planned for 10 May, would result in a spectacular first-round victory for the incumbent president. Polls had indeed proved Duda’s popularity and the initial coronavirus response of the government, as well as the relatively mild numbers of reported deaths and infections in Poland, only strengthened his position.

But it was too good to be true. When at the beginning of March Europe plunged into a gloomy mood as reports of coronavirus death rates rose rapidly in Italy, Spain and the UK, public opinion in Poland started to realise that to hold the elections amid the pandemic amounts to a suicide plan. Soon the government-imposed lockdown threw the preparations for the vote into disarray. Moreover, in the absence of traditional campaigning due to the new social distancing measures, the democratic character of elections started to be called into question.

The only way of postponing elections according to the Polish constitution is to declare a state of emergency (so-called “state of natural disaster”) and this is what the opposition called for. However, implementing it would significantly strain the budget, as it would legally oblige the state to provide compensations to people and businesses affected by the epidemic. Of course, Law and Justice didn’t want to find itself in such a position. But above all, the ruling party wanted to hold the elections before the expected economic downturn and potential public health crisis.

This is why PiS came up with the idea of all-postal voting. However, the controversial bill allowing May’s presidential election to be held entirely by post drew fierce criticism. While the ruling coalition claimed that this was the only way to fulfil its constitutional obligation to organise elections on time, the opposition insisted that adapting changes in the electoral code a few weeks before the vote, as well as the specific legal measures planned by PiS, would make the voting illegitimate. Polish National Electoral Commission (PKW) declared that organising all-postal elections within less than a month was “impossible for legal and organisational reasons” and several local authorities declared that they could not and would not organise voting because of the lockdown. 

The public was afraid that voting would lead to a severe outbreak of coronavirus infections. According to the poll by “United Surveys” from the beginning of April, only 38,9 per cent of Poles were going to vote, and only 25 per cent approved the idea of all-postal elections. Finally, when Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska, the presidential candidate of the main opposition party Civic Platform (PO), called for a boycott of the elections the conflict reached a stalemate.

The split in the government 

And thus, the political earthquake began, or at least everybody believed so. The first seismic wave came when the controversy surrounding all-postal May elections led to an unprecedented split in the government. Deputy prime minister Jarosław Gowin, whose group of 18 lawmakers ensures the ruling party’s majority, proposed a “compromise solution”: to postpone elections by changing the constitution to prolong the incumbent presidents’ term by two years. The idea was rejected by PiS leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, who wanted the elections as soon as possible. On 6 April Gowin – who has been a member of Civil Platform in the past – stepped down and declared that he would not support the bill on all-postal voting.

When the talks between Gowin and the opposition began, the ground beneath the government started to tremble. An abundance of hypothetical scenarios, about new elections and new parliamentary majority, convinced the public that the end of a five-year-long rule of PiS is within reach. However, while the news and rumours about negotiations and intrigues sparked enthusiasm and outrage in the media and politicians, the citizens still didn’t know when, and if, the elections would take place. The government had an answer though: Jacek Sasin, a deputy prime minister, said that despite there being no legal basis for it in place yet, that the ballots were already being printed and the Polish Post is preparing for all-postal voting.

So there we were, waiting for a real earthquake – the illegitimate presidential elections destined to be branded as a coronavirus power-grab by all those who expected that Law and Justice’s “hybrid dictatorship” would not waste a single opportunity to solidify its power. Ironically, we were left to ponder this seemingly surreal thought during the 3 May Constitution Day, a national holiday celebrating the adaptation of the Constitution in 1791.

A farce instead of an earthquake

Almost all of the coronavirus restrictions were still in place during the May long weekend but since the weather was great Poles were enjoying themselves in the sun, playing around with kids and laughing at grim political jokes. During the weekend, the eyes of the desperate public turned to Szymon Hołownia, the presidential candidate who declared that he “would give up everything to make Poland the way it is in the Constitution” and cried in front of the camera during one of his Facebook Live sessions.

The political outsider turned new centre-right populist candidate was the biggest winner in this new situation. In absence of better alternatives, the newly discovered political vocation of this Catholic journalist, humanitarian activist, and TV persona, who promises to “give the power back to the people”, proved to be appealing to a widening group of voters and his support reached almost 20 percent.

After the national holiday, a debate between the presidential candidates, broadcast over the government-controlled public television, took place. Four days before the planned elections, the candidates were discussing the coronavirus crisis, economy, EU policy and other issues as if the voting were just about to happen. 

The real political game, however, was taking place elsewhere: in the headquarters of Law and Justice, where Jarosław Kaczyński and Jarosław Gowin met to once again discuss the prospect of upcoming elections. When the presidential candidates left the television studio “the two Jarosławs” issued in a joint statement that they had agreed to postpone the voting and set a new date, to “guarantee Poles the opportunity to participate in democratic elections”. According to their statement “after the expiration of the 10th of May deadline and the expected invalidation of the elections by the Supreme Court, in the absence of the elections, the Speaker of the Polish Parliament will announce new presidential elections at the first possible date”.

The earthquake didn’t happen. On the same day, the ruling coalition, including Gowin, adopted the necessary legislation. On Sunday of 10 May, Poland formally had elections. In fact, they didn’t take place and the Polish National Electoral Commission (PKW) declared them invalid.

The government’s loss of credibility and the European reaction

When – after weeks of heated political conflict – the worst-case scenario of illegitimate presidential elections did not materialise, most Poles breathed a sigh of relief. However, the way the elections have been postponed lead to a further weakening of the rule of law and democratic standards in Poland, which will likely intensify the ongoing conflict between the Polish government and the EU.

According to Piotr Buras, head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, “the deal of the two Jarosławs” was “a massive violation of the foundations of the democratic order”. “Simply put, in a democratic country, the government decided — consciously — not to organise the election of the head of state,” he said in an interview with “BIRN”. Robert Biedroń, the presidential candidate of the left, has called for an inquiry into “why this crisis occurred and elections could not be held”. Some opposition MPs are calling for PiS politicians to be brought before the State Tribunal for violating electoral law. 

On 1 June, a new report on the rule of law in Poland was discussed in the European Parliament. Juan Fernando López Aguilar, the chair of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE), which drafted the report, said that “the state of democracy in Poland is constantly deteriorating, as is the state of the rule of law and protection of fundamental rights”. He added that “the rights of sexual minorities, the right to freedom of expression, media freedom and the right to criticise the government are under constant pressure”. LIBE’s chair also said that “the Law and Justice government is doing everything to suppress the democratic resistance to its rule” and declared that “access to EU funds should be conditional on full compliance with European standards of democracy, rule of law, and protection of minorities”.

The hearing of the LIBE Committee, which expressed concerns over “the functioning of the constitutional, legislative and electoral system”, revealed that the ongoing conflict between the Polish government and the EU will probably escalate to a new level. Polish MEP Beata Kempa has described the Committee’s report as a “powerful attack on Poland”. Aguilar has, in turn, said that “many MEPs believe that the Law and Justice government wants confrontation” and “its actions in practice lead to a kind of Polexit”.

In a political landscape dominated by efforts to overcome the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, presidential elections in Poland may lead to a significant political change. Poland is the third biggest beneficiary of the planned EU Recovery Fund. According to the current proposal, it will get 63,8 billion euros. 

However, Europe’s “Hamiltonian moment”, provoked by the huge amounts of spending and investment plans, applies new pressure on the Polish government. Even more so because the aid package included in the EU budget for 2021-2027 will be tied in with the “money for the rule of law” regulation that the Commission prepared in mid-2018. The support of Hungary will not be sufficient for Law and Justice anymore. It the future, it will need to build a broader coalition in Europe or withdraw from some of its controversial reforms.

The drama of non-elections undermined the stability of the Polish political system. Again, we saw Law and Justice’s tactic of making things so murky that there’s no plausible way out, dragging opposition into the mess, and then triumphantly solving the problem that they themselves created with new controversial measures, ideally with the help of some of the recently overtaken institutions. To many, this is proof of Kaczyński’s political power. This time, however, Law and Justice might have gone too far.

New candidate and new dynamic

The parliament decided to hold new elections on 28 June. The lockdown measures are now lifted but the number of coronavirus infections and deaths in not declining. Regular campaigning is allowed and almost all Poles will vote in a traditional manner (postal voting is available on request).

The Civic Platform took advantage of this new situation and replaced Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska, the previous nominee, with Rafał Trzaskowski, the mayor of Warsaw (as well as former Vice-President of the European People’s Party). The new candidate surged in the polls and the presidential campaign took off once again. 

Law and Justice, which controls the parliament, left Trzaskowski only five days to collect the 100 thousand signatures. This ostentatious strategy proved to be counter-effective: Civic Platform mobilised all the resources at their disposal and collected 1,6 million signatures in this short period, which fuelled the new candidate’s campaign – led under the slogan “we are fed up with this” – with a new dynamism and a sense of electoral capability.

According to a recent “IBRIS” poll, all other candidates except Trzaskowski lost some part of their support (and the rising star of Szymon Hołowania lost its brightness almost entirely). Several polls suggest that, eventually, the second round of the elections will be a confrontation between Andrzej Duda and Rafał Trzaskowski. The differences between them are now within the margin of error, and the incumbent president seems to be losing his nerve.

From the homophobic rally to the White House

With this unexpected shift in electoral preferences, Law and Justice decided to draw on its traditional repertoire of negative campaigning and apparently decided to fight for the votes of the supporters of Krzysztof Bosak – their far-right competitor. During one of his rallies, Duda compared the “LGBT ideology” (which will supposedly threaten Poland if Trzaskowski becomes a president) to “neobolshevism” and said that it is “more destructive”. The statement was followed by homophobic rhetoric from several important PiS politicians. When the international outrage sparked by this episode faded away, Duda moved on to describe the opposition as “a virus worse than coronavirus”. 

The heated confrontation reached an international level when, four days before the elections, the Polish president visited Washington to meet Donald Trump as the first foreign leader after the outbreak of the pandemic. Before the meeting, Eliot L. Engel, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the US Congress called on President Donald Trump “to cancel the meeting with President Andrzej Duda immediately” and said that Trump’s invitation “is another example of his infatuation with leaders who have shown autocratic tendencies”. 

Andrzej Duda was so desperate to receive an election boost from American president that he decided to trade European solidarity for vague US declarations. Trump confirmed that he is “probably” going to transfer some of the NATO troops stationed in Germany to Polish territory and Polish president was ready to express his gratitude even though he had been warned by NATO’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, against interfering in the American-German dispute and weakening Alliance’s cohesion before the visit.

Every election seems historic to those who take part in it but this time the economic and political crisis in Europe and beyond intertwined with the internal political conflict in Poland in a new unpredictable way. So, on Sunday, the big day is coming.

By Aleksander Palikot (Forum’s Regional Editor in Warsaw)


Aleksander is a journalist covering politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe as well as a researcher interested in the sociology of knowledge.