Shortly after polls closed on Sunday night, and with his victory not yet confirmed, Poland’s president Andrzej Duda invited his challenger Rafal Trzaskowski to the presidential palace in Warsaw.
“I would like . . . us to shake hands, and with this handshake, end the campaign,” Mr Duda said.
The gesture was a recognition of how polarising the battle for Poland’s presidency had been. Mr Duda, backed by the ruling conservative-nationalist Law and Justice party, emerged as narrow victor, beating the centre-right Mr Trzaskowski by 51.08 per cent to 48.92. But this close win has been achieved by exploiting deep political and societal faultlines, which are unlikely to go away soon.
Indeed, even as Mr Duda was trying to appear conciliatory, other politicians from the ruling camp were quick to float ideas that could provide the ammunition for the next round of political infighting in Poland, and put further strain on the frayed relations between Brussels and the EU’s sixth-biggest economy.
One flashpoint is likely to be a further overhaul of the judiciary. Since coming to power five years ago, Law and Justice has pushed through changes giving politicians sweeping powers over judges, prompting the EU to launch a probe into the rule of law in Poland.
Yet despite the pressure from Brussels, Law and Justice has pressed on, and Zbigniew Ziobro, the hardline justice minister, said on Sunday that “completing the reform” should now be one of the government’s priorities.
Another contentious issue could be the media. Law and Justice has long argued that steps should be taken to reduce foreign ownership of Poland’s private news outlets.
Political opponents say such plans would be a pretext for Law and Justice to shut down criticism after co-opting state media, and suggest that it would be hard to draw up such legislation without breaking EU law.
Rafal Trzaskowski concedes defeat © Czarek Sokolowski/AP
In the final days of the campaign, the topic returned to the fore, with Mr Duda claiming that German-owned media was trying to sway the result of the election against him.
“It should not be the case that part of the media really becomes part of the election team of one candidate,” Mr Ziobro said on Sunday. “We can’t close our eyes and pretend that we don’t see this.”
This could herald renewed tussles with Brussels, and a weakening of Poland’s position in the negotiations over the EU’s next long-term budget, according to Anna Materska-Sosnowska, a political scientist from the University of Warsaw. “We are heading towards a clash with the EU,” she said. “I think that linking the EU budget with the rule of law is a threat for us, and it’s a real one.”
Pekka Haavisto, foreign minister of Finland, which traditionally takes a tough line in EU rule of law debates, told the Financial Times that he, on the contrary, believed the closeness of the Polish contest might hold back the ruling party.
Extending his congratulations to Mr Duda and Polish voters for the high turnout, Mr Haavisto said: “When it’s so tight . . . the winner has to take into account that the other side also made such good progress . . . Somehow the normal logic, of course, would be to try to reunite the country and act as the president of each and everyone.”
However, reuniting Poland will be a difficult task after a campaign that revealed the profound divisions shaping Polish politics.
Mr Trzaskowski won the majority of his support in Poland’s liberal big cities, racking up two-thirds of the vote in places with more than 500,000 inhabitants, as well as winning among young people and entrepreneurs. He won 68 per cent of the vote in the capital, Warsaw, of which he is the mayor.
Meanwhile, Mr Duda did best in the countryside and in towns of less than 10,000 inhabitants, as well as winning a majority of voters aged over 50, blue-collar workers and farmers.
Aleks Szczerbiak, professor of politics at the University of Sussex in the UK, said that Mr Duda’s strength in provincial Poland, which he has courted over the past five years, had been the bedrock of his success.
“Duda didn’t really try to reach out to the political centre or try to present himself as the president of all Poles,” Mr Szczerbiak said. “The group that he really targeted was small-town voters, and that’s what won him the election. The biggest increase in the vote between the first and second round was in those small towns and rural areas.”
A key part of Mr Duda’s appeal to small-town Poland was positioning himself as a guarantor of the generous welfare measures introduced by Law and Justice, that have greatly improved the lives of poorer Polish families, particularly in rural areas, and in the country’s less developed east.
But his campaign also sought to mobilise conservative voters by demonising the LGBT rights movement and accusing his rival of not serving Polish interests.
Election observers from the OSCE noted “instances of intolerant rhetoric of xenophobic, homophobic and antisemitic nature, particularly by the incumbent’s campaign and the public broadcaster”.
The outcome was reflected in Poland’s newspaper headlines on Monday morning: “Triumph of the Polish-Polish war”, trumpeted the centrist Dziennik Gazeta Prawna on its front page, while Rzeczpospolita, another centrist daily, stated: “Divided Poland”.