To understand what was at stake in Sunday’s cliffhanger presidential election in Poland, it is worth rewinding a few days to an interview with Jaroslaw Kaczyński, the chairman and éminence grise of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS).
Mr Kaczyński, who was prime minister of Poland in the mid-2000s, was not standing in the contest himself. But he still calls the shots in PiS, whose preferred candidate, Andrzej Duda, has been re-elected as president by the narrowest of margins. Speaking to an arch-conservative Catholic radio station, Mr Kaczyński warned that Mr Duda’s liberal opponent, Rafał Trzaskowski, lacked a “Polish soul”. The evidence, he said, was Mr Trzaskowski’s unpatriotic willingness to even consider Jewish restitution claims in relation to the second world war. He went on to hint at a need to “repolonise” sections of the media partly under foreign ownership. And, emphasising a running theme of Mr Duda’s successful campaign for re-election, Mr Kaczyński predicted an opposition victory would see Poland capitulate to an “LGBT offensive”, corrupting the minds of the young.
This mindset – nationalistic, bullying and poisonous towards minorities – has cast its shadow over Polish public life for the past five years. Following Mr Duda’s victory, PiS now has a clear run until elections in 2023 to further entrench its vision at the heart of institutions such as schools, the judiciary and the media.
As a result an even chiller wind will blow for LGBT people living in Poland. Last week, on the campaign trail, Mr Duda promised to introduce a new constitutional clause banning same-sex adoption and he will continue to block same-sex marriage. Life for Poland’s beleaguered independent media will become even more difficult. The confrontation between the government and the EU over the alleged undermining of judges’ independence will continue.
It is not hard then to sympathise with the 48.8% of voters who backed Mr Trzaskowski, in the hope of making Poland a more open and tolerant country than Mr Duda and PiS will allow it to be. The highest election turnout since 1989 reflected a genuine belief that this could be a game-changing poll. In the event it was desperately close – a matter of about half a million votes. A woefully biased state media played its part. But this bitter defeat also carries a stark lesson for opposition parties.
With Mr Duda’s second term in serious jeopardy, his supporters were able to mobilise a majority made up of older voters and those living in rural communities and small towns. A crucial proportion of those who had stayed home for the first vote two weeks ago turned out for the second round run-off. It was a demonstration that, in the parts of the country sometimes referred to as “Poland B”, which have seen less of the benefits of globalisation, PiS’s redistributive programmes are popular and inspire fierce loyalty.
The young and the urban generally voted for Mr Trzaskowski. Just as in neighbouring Hungary and in most of western Europe, the youthful cities are liberal. But to navigate a route back to power, Poland’s opposition must find a way to win back the trust of communities that have come to associate greater economic security with the cultural conservatism and bigotry of PiS. It is a task greatly complicated by the continuing influence and sway of conservative elements in the Catholic church. But for Poland’s heartbroken liberals, it must become the priority between now and the next electoral opportunity to turn back the illiberal tide.