Andrzej Duda of the Law and Justice Party (PiS) will serve a second presidential term in Poland. The faint hope of an early exit poll, which suggested Rafał Trzaskowski of the right-liberal Civic Platform (PO) might eke out a narrow victory over Duda, proved illusory. PiS and its satellite parties in the “United Right” coalition will not be blocked by an adversarial head of state. The high turnout, at 68 percent, gives the right-nationalist party an even greater mandate.
The election split Poland almost down the middle: 51 percent for the incumbent president, 49 percent for Trzaskowski. The divide has been explained in both the Western and Polish media by a familiar trope. On the one side there are the tolerant, cosmopolitan liberals; on the other the conservative, plebian populists. While this formula does illustrate certain dimensions of the split, it overemphasizes the differences between the parties.
Today’s political divide between PO and PiS can be traced to the electoral collapse of the post-communist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). In 2005, having eroded their base of support through social spending cuts and corruption scandals, SLD’s electoral share in the Sejm (parliament) dropped by 30 percent. The two right-wing parties, PO and PiS, scooped up the lost votes, marking the beginning of the political duopoly in Poland that persists to this day.
At that time the two parties were considered relatively similar. They were both successors to the post-Solidarity right of the 1990s and were socially conservative, against abortion and gay marriage. Following the election, however, coalition talks between PO and PiS broke down, and an intense rivalry began. For fifteen years, they wrestled over power, with PO presenting itself as the party that would bring Poland closer to Europe and PiS promising that it would eradicate the “post-communist condition” that it blamed for a moral deficit in Polish politics.
In 2015 Duda was elected president and PiS swept parliament. The party formed a coalition government with other right-wing parties, which was led by Beata Szydło as prime minister and Jarosław Kaczyński as chairman of the governing party. The PiS government pursued a series of reforms, called the “Good Change,” including a significant expansion of social transfers and limitations on the autonomy of the judiciary. After two years, Szydło was replaced as prime minister by former banker Mateusz Morawiecki, in an attempt to improve the party’s image with the West. The “Good Change” paid its dividends. Poland has enjoyed strong growth since 2015 driven by household consumption. In 2019 PiS held its majority in the Sejm.
Despite PiS’s recent successes, this year’s presidential contest wasn’t a cinch for the governing party. In an effort to turn out its base, it decided to fight the presidential election as a culture war, presenting itself as the defender of Polish values. Duda ramped up the anti-LGBT rhetoric, characterizing “LGBT ideology” as a form of “neo-bolshevism” whose goal was to indoctrinate Polish children. This comparison had already become a staple of the Church hierarchy, when a year ago the archbishop of Krakow compared the “rainbow plague” of LGBT people to the “red plague” of communism. PiS made full use of its control of public television. The station’s signature evening news program ran stories suggesting that Trzaskowski’s victory would be a victory for Germans, a favorite target, and sent anti-Semitic dog whistles, alleging that 200 billion złoty set aside for “Polish families” would be used to appease property claims by “Jewish organizations.”
While the negative characteristics of the governing camp have been widely reported in the Western press, we hear less about the sins and failings of the opposition. PO’s primary weakness is its lack of a clear political identity. It is against PiS, but it is difficult to say what it is for. Even among hardline PO voters, one hears few positive statements about the party or its program. In pro-PO circles there is a culture of condescension toward the poorer part of PiS’s electorate, reminiscent of Reaganite discourse about “welfare queens”: PiS voters are supposedly bums who have babies to collect benefits, which they spend on vodka and vacations to the Baltic coast. Among the pro-PO middle class, there are some who have an inability to differentiate, as the great writer of the Polish left Stefan Żeromski once did, between snobbery and progress.
To Trzaskowski’s credit, his campaign avoided this kind of condescension. The candidate even wrote an open letter to PiS supporters saying he would be a president of reconciliation. He promised to keep PiS’s popular social programs. These appeals were in part based on a hope that Trzaskowski could capture the votes of some PiS supporters, especially the village youth, which is less culturally conservative but benefits from the party’s social spending. This tactic failed because, despite recent efforts, PO is still associated with a rise in the retirement age and attempts to reduce worker protections when the party was last in power.
Polish society is polarized. For the duration of the presidential campaign, which lacked the presence of a strong left or even a center-left, the two right-wing parties tussled over the basic legitimacy of power relations. Duda’s victory has been characterized as another example of the triumph of the populist right over the liberal center, and a rejection of neoliberalism. But such an explanation flattens the reality. Beyond international trends, it is important to consider this result in the context of Poland’s post-1989 transformation. Looking at how this history shaped PiS’s politics in unique and contradictory ways allows us to understand the party’s particular appeal—and its weaknesses.
The networks of political and economic power that exist behind the scenes in all countries are harder to conceal in a place like Poland, which has been “building capitalism” for thirty years. Several major business scandals involving public officials of the SLD, PO, a