25 May 2015

Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski last night conceded defeat after an exit poll showed him trailing his challenger, Law and Justice MEP Andrzej Duda by 47% to 53% in the second round of the Presidential elections. The result is likely to have significant ramifications for Poland, Europe and David Cameron’s EU renegotiation.

Poland: Is Law and Justice in the driving seat ahead of the parliamentary elections?

Duda’s victory has broken Civic Platform’s run of electoral victories stretching back to 2007, putting Law and Justice in a strong position ahead of the parliamentary elections in the autumn. Despite the strong performance of the Polish economy overall, a lot of Poles feel they themselves have not benefited, with many choosing to emigrate. In addition, as in much of Europe, there is anger and disillusionment at what is perceived to be an out-of-touch and self serving political elite. Andrzej Duda was able to tap into these sentiments – winning the youth vote for example – while Komorowski ran a campaign most Polish commentators considered tone-deaf and negative.

The Kopacz government will now have to find a way of living with Duda who will have the power to initiate and veto legislation. However, in recent times Poland has frequently had governments and Presidents from different political parties so the significance of Duda’s win should not be overstated. In addition, I would argue that this defeat could assist Civic Platform in the parliamentary elections, firstly by shaking it from its complacency and forcing it to consider bold economic and political reforms, and secondly by making fears of a Law and Justice take-over more real, especially with controversial party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski (as opposed to the relatively moderate and baggage-free Duda) likely to play a central role in the campaign.

Europe: A more decentralised EU, no to the euro and an “intensive dialogue” with Germany

Law and Justice supports Poland’s EU membership but unlike Civic Platform it opposes further EU integration, especially in sensitive areas like justice and fundamental rights. In an interview with the Financial Times, Duda said he wanted to revisit the allocation of decision-making power between Brussels and member states, and to “strengthen the guarantee of sovereignty within the framework of national legislation”.

Duda also tapped into strong Polish opposition to joining the euro with a campaign video showing a family having to cut back on their weekly shop due to higher food prices caused by euro membership (as happened in Slovakia). Although the decision is not ultimately up to the President, Komorowski had wanted to use his second term to “lead a debate” about euro membership to prepare the ground politically, while Law and Justice says the issue is off the table until living standards in Poland fully catch up with those in Western Europe. With further integration in the Eurozone likely at some point in the next few years, Poland may therefore have to commit itself more explicitly to longer-term safeguards for non-euro member states.

Law and Justice also think the current government is too deferential towards Berlin. Duda has called for an “intense dialogue” so that Poland can be more assertive in pushing its interests which include securing NATO bases on Polish territory (something Germany thinks would be too provocative vis-a-vis Moscow) and a stronger presence at the table when it comes to discussing the future of Ukraine. Although foreign policy remains the domain of the government, the constitution gives the President a coordinating role so his position will have to be factored in. This could destabilise the strong relations built up under the Merkel and the Tusk/Kopacz governments.

A boost for Cameron’s renegotiation but EU migrants’ access to benefits will be a sticking point

In many ways Duda’s victory is a boost to David Cameron’s renegotiation given the convergence of views between the Tories and Law and Justice on cutting back the EU’s powers and opposition to euro membership. With Cameron having to sell an alternative philosophy for the EU as much a list of concrete measures, having like-minded politicians winning elections around Europe on a platform which includes EU reform is very helpful.

However, despite their formal alliance in the European Parliament, the Tories and Law and Justice are in some ways ill-matched – the Tories are much more economically liberal while despite their lazy categorisation as a ‘right wing’ party in the UK media, Law and Justice combines nationalist rhetoric with elements of traditional social democracy such as a strong social safety net.

This combination makes it very hard for them to agree to David Cameron’s proposals on restricting EU migrants’ access to the UK welfare system. During the election campaign Duda made a point of coming to London to appeal to Poles ‘abandoned’ by the government, so it will be hard for him to sign off on new rules which will be presented as removing their rights. Depending on the outcome of the parliamentary elections, Cameron might end up having to negotiate changes to EU benefit rules not only with the Polish government but with his Law and Justice allies.