„Polish presidential rivals campaign with daggers drawn”

18 maj 2015

The knives are out in Poland’s presidential campaign as incumbent centrist Bronislaw Komorowski risks losing the May 24 run-off to conservative challenger Andrzej Duda, possibly setting the tone for this autumn’s parliamentary election.

The 62-year-old Komorowski was stunned by his narrow first round election loss to Duda, a 43-year-old populist candidate from the main conservative opposition party Law and Justice (PiS).

Komorowski, who has been president since 2010 and is close to the governing centrist Civic Platform (PO) party, scored 33.8 percent of the vote against Duda’s 34.8 percent.

Now both candidates are attempting to woo voters who stayed away from the ballot box during the initial round, as well as those who backed anti-establishment rock musician Pawel Kukiz.

A political novice running on an anti-system message, Kukiz burst from nowhere to finish third with a 20.8 percent first round score, getting support from young and disillusioned voters.

Now, with the PO and PiS still running neck-and-neck in opinion polls ahead of the final, analysts say the outcome of the presidential battle may well be a harbinger of things to come in the parliamentary ballot.

Despite staging a campaign widely perceived as floundering, Komorowski got a major lift Sunday when Polish analysts scored him winner of a nationally televised debate with Duda.

„Komorowski – Duda 1 to 0,” read the front page of Monday’s popular centre-left Gazeta Wyborcza daily, echoing the general media consensus.

A broadly smiling lawyer with a penchant for wading into crowds of average Poles with his sleeves rolled up, Duda has focused on bread-and-butter issues including reducing the retirement age and launching generous social spending plans.

He has meantime accused the mellow Komorowski of being out of touch with the people, and of having been coached by whispering aides before making comments during voter meet-and-greets.

Komorowski has countered with accusations that Duda is making promises Poland cannot afford, and of being the puppet of PiS party leader, former prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

Yet after having focused primarily on national security and Russia’s military resurgence for most of his campaign, Komorowski has now also begun talking about issues closer to voters’ pocketbooks.

He has unveiled a programme worth an estimated 670 million euros ($760 million) to create 100,000 jobs for youths — a demographic that represented 40 percent of Kukiz’s electorate.

Komorowski has also latched onto the rock star’s main proposal of holding a referendum on introducing a majority electoral system to replace the current proportional voting rules.

People watch a debate between Polish president Bronislaw Komorowski and presidential candidate Andrzej Duda on May 17, 2015 in Warsaw

Despite Komorowski’s altered messages and combative debate performance, however, it is unclear whether he’s making up ground lost during his earlier flailing.

An opinion poll released two days before the debate found Duda scoring 44 percent support against 40 for the president.

Sixteen percent of Poles remain undecided, however, according to the Millward Brown pollsters.

„Round one showed that the people have had enough of the current elite, of the system governing Poland,” said sociologist Maciej Gdula from the University of Warsaw.

Komorowski embodies this elite, he said, while opponents Duda and Kukiz represent change.

Polish voters abandoned the left in round one. Leftist candidates Magdalena Ogorek — a political unknown with model good looks — and former vodka baron Janusz Palikot scored less than five percent combined.

„People want change. They want to swap out the generation that has been in power in Poland for 25 years,” said political analyst Eryk Mistewicz.

„They forget that hidden behind Mr. Duda is (former premier) Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who’s been shaping the Polish political scene forever,” and is the twin brother of late president Lech Kaczynski.

The election campaign will culminate with another televised debate on May 21.

„A Duda victory on May 24 could hand a parliamentary win to his party, which has been out of power since 2007,” Mistewicz said, looking forward to the autumn general election.

„We could also see a protest group led by Mr. Kukiz, which would mainly bring together angry youths frustrated by the situation in Poland.”

Analysts say a new party appealing to disgruntled voters could muster between 10 and 15 percent support, and possibly become a coalition kingmaker.