Poland’s president Duda ignites culture wars in re-election bid

Andrzej Duda began his speech in Brzeg, a small town in southwestern Poland, with a paean to the residents who defended local church property against the military police in the dark days of Poland’s communist era. The anecdote led him to what he described as a worse modern-day threat to the country: LGBT “ideology”.

“Today we are also defending our values,” said the Polish president, who is seeking re-election on Sunday. “The generation of my parents did not fight for 40 years to kick the communist ideology out of schools . . . in order for us to now accept that another ideology should arrive, that is even more destructive for people.”

The election will be the third in a row in which Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), the 48-year-old Mr Duda’s longtime party before he became president (Poland’s president cannot be a member of a party) has sought to rally its conservative base against what it portrays as cultural threats from a liberal urban elite that has lost touch with Polish values.

But while the tactic helped PiS coast to victory in last year’s European and Polish parliamentary elections, Mr Duda is facing a much tougher race this time around.

Polls suggest that he will win the first round of the voting with around 42 per cent of the vote on Sunday, or 10 points more than his nearest rival, the liberal opposition mayor of Warsaw, Rafal Trzaskowski. But this margin would evaporate in a run-off, held on July 12 if no one wins more than 50 per cent in the first round.

The stakes are high. During his five years in office, Mr Duda has supported PiS’s most contentious policies. Were he to lose, the opposition, armed with the presidency’s veto powers, would be able to provide a check on the ruling party and its measures — including a bitterly contested judicial reform — that have set Warsaw at odds with Brussels.

Mr Duda has been put on the back foot by Mr Trzaskowski’s campaign momentum. After trumpeting PiS’s popular welfare policies and plans for big infrastructure projects, the Polish leader has lately cast around for ways to regain the initiative.

On Wednesday, Mr Duda took the unusual step of leaving the country days before an election for a hastily-arranged meeting with US president Donald Trump. The meeting was designed to showcase Mr Duda’s close relationship with the leader of Poland’s key security guarantor at a time when the Trump administration is planning to withdraw US troops from Europe.

Mr Trzaskowski, 48, has faced hostile coverage on state television and last week, the interior ministry announced that in each region, the municipality with the highest turnout will win funding for a fire engine — an attempt to boost turnout for Mr Duda as it applies to small town areas where PiS is strongest.

As in the last two elections, much of PiS’s campaign has revolved around “culture war” issues such as LGBT rights. One of Mr Duda’s staff said on Polish state TV that LGBT people were “not equal to normal people”. Another PiS MP tweeted a cartoon comparing same-sex marriages to a marriage between a man and a goat.

“This rhetoric is just squalid,” said Anna Materska-Sosnowska, from the University of Warsaw. “It is one thing to say something. It is another thing the way those words translate to the everyday lives of these people, to the growing aggression towards them. You can finish the campaign, wash your hands and take down the election posters, but all of this will stay.”

But other observers say the rhetoric may not put off swing voters in provincial Poland, among whom Catholic-infused traditional family values still hold considerable sway.

“You’re not necessarily losing the centre ground (in Poland) if you’re able to portray that [LGBT] agenda as part of an aggressive culture war which undermines the fundamentals of Polish civilisation and society,” said Aleks Szczerbiak, professor of politics at the UK’s University of Sussex.

Raised in Krakow, southern Poland, and with a background in law, Mr Duda worked as an aide to President Lech Kaczynski, who founded PiS with his twin Jaroslaw. After Lech’s death in an air crash in 2010, Mr Duda became a PiS MP in 2011 and won a seat in European parliament in 2014.

As president, he has visited all of Poland’s 380 counties, and his supporters say that his conservatism chimes in better with the values of small-town Poland than Mr Trzaskowski’s cosmopolitanism.

“Duda is a deeply religious person and many Polish people feel this,” said Andrzej Zybertowicz, an adviser to Mr Duda. “In Poland the relationship with the Catholic church is different from in other modern societies, and I think during his presidency Duda was perceived in Poland as someone who expresses the needs of normal people.”

But even with his support outside Poland’s big cities, analysts say that the deep polarisation of Polish society means the race against Mr Trzaskowski is likely to go down to the wire.

“Duda’s biggest strength is that he is genuinely popular in small town Poland,” said Prof Szczerbiak. “His problem is going beyond that core. That fact that he is very strongly identified with Law and Justice means that there are potentially people who like him personally, but who are going to vote against him regardless.”