Warsaw’s liberal mayor mounts election challenge to Andrzej Duda

When Poland’s presidential election campaign began in February, Rafal Trzaskowski was not even on the ballot. But a week before the vote, the liberal mayor of Warsaw is the main challenger to the incumbent, Andrzej Duda, who is backed by the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS).

Mr Trzaskowski, 48, was parachuted into the race last month, after the coronavirus pandemic forced the election, originally scheduled for May 10, to be postponed. This gave his Civic Platform party a chance to replace its struggling candidate Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska, whose support had withered into single digits.

Five weeks later, backing for Mr Trzaskowski, the polyglot son of a jazz musician, has jumped to around 32 per cent, according to an aggregation of polls by Ben Stanley, associate professor at SWPS University in Warsaw.

Mr Duda still leads with around 42 per cent. But a run-off between the pair — which will be held if no candidate wins more than 50 per cent in the first round on June 28 — would see Mr Duda’s lead all but evaporate.

The stakes are high. Since 2015, the conservative-nationalist PiS has been able to rule largely unfettered, buttressed by Mr Duda’s support for its often controversial agenda. An opposition president, armed with the office’s veto powers, would be a check on the ruling party — and Mr Trzaskowski has made this one of his main selling points.

Andrzej Duda at a rally in Lubin on Monday. He has sought to portray his rival as a member of Warsaw’s liberal elite Andrzej Duda at a rally in Lubin on Monday. He has sought to portray his rival as a member of Warsaw’s liberal elite © via REUTERS

“Duda is a guy who is not independent . . . and in this day and age, we need a strong president who is going to control the monopoly of the government,” he said in an interview with the Financial Times.

“PiS promised people a strong state . . . but we are now seeing that it didn’t materialise.”

Mr Trzaskowski’s start has been quicker than his rivals expected. Given just six days by PiS to gather the 100,000 signatures needed to run for president, his campaign amassed 1.6m in four days, shaking up a race that had looked increasingly like being a coronation for Mr Duda.

“Trzaskowski has a good chance,” said Prof Stanley. “I would still make Duda favourite. He’s got the public media squarely behind him . . . he’s got that [government] machinery behind him. But the momentum at the moment is with the opposition, and Trzaskowski in particular.”

Line chart showing Polish presidential election polls. Andrzej Duda's lead has narrowed since Rafal Trzaskowski joined the race in mid-May.

So far, Mr Trzaskowski’s rise in the polls has been built on re-energising Civic Platform voters. Many had drifted to other candidates after Ms Kidawa-Blonska called on them to boycott the May election, which PiS initially tried to avoid postponing despite the escalating pandemic.

“We don’t want Poland the way it is today,” said Olga, who had travelled 20km with her mother to watch Mr Trzaskowski speak at a rally in Legnica, a mid-sized town in western Poland. “I’m on the left side of Polish politics . . . Duda is not my president.”

If Mr Trzaskowski is to oust Mr Duda, though, he will also have to win over moderate conservatives.

“He won’t win just by mobilising the large towns and metropolitan areas. He’s also got to be able to win support in small town provincial Poland,” said Aleks Szczerbiak, professor of politics at the UK’s University of Sussex.

“A lot of the things that give him credibility with the big city urban electorate — the fact he comes across as very urbane, educated, speaking many languages, being very liberal on social and cultural issues — are potentially the things that are very problematic for him,” Prof Szczerbiak added. “He is well to the left on moral-cultural issues than the centre of gravity in Polish politics.”

PiS has sought to exploit this fact by portraying Mr Trzaskowski as a member of the Warsaw elite. It has used his support for LGBT rights to whip up fears among its voters about threats to traditional Catholic values. And state media has also sought to sow doubt over his support for the “500 plus” child benefit programme that has been one of PiS’s most popular policies among less well-off voters.

In response, Mr Trzaskowski has made visits to small towns a key part of his campaign. He has affirmed his support for 500 plus, and contrasted his plans for investments “around the corner” from ordinary voters with PiS’s promises of mega-projects, such as a new airport hub near Warsaw.

“We need investment to get out of the economic crisis. But it has to be investment that is situated in the regions close to people, where generating a workforce will be immediate,” he said, adding that he wanted local authorities to be able to set the priorities for such projects.

In last year’s parliamentary and European elections, focusing on “culture war” topics proved to be a vote winner for PiS. But, so far, the strategy does not appear to have slowed Mr Trzaskowski’s momentum, and analysts say that if the election becomes a plebiscite on the government’s record after five years in power, the result could be close.

“Polish public opinion is very evenly divided in their evaluation of the Law and Justice government,” said Prof Szczerbiak. “Insofar as this election plays out with people voting on whether they are for or against the Law and Justice government, it will be a very evenly matched affair, which could go either way.”