Vote strength results of the second round of the 2020 Polish presidential election.

Vote strength results of the second round of the 2020 Polish presidential election.

Election Presidential election in Poland: the festival of polarization

The brutal presidential campaign only exemplified the degree of polarization in the Polish society. The campaign before the first round turned out to be relatively calm, where most of the candidates had to show their conciliatory side. However, due to the course, the intensity of the competition had revealed long-lasting divisions in Poland.

Published on on July 21, 2020

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After the longest election campaign that Poland has ever experienced, the final race took place between incumbent Andrzej Duda and his main challenger Rafał Trzaskowski – the liberal mayor of Warsaw. Both are born in 1972, they are well educated and have experience of working in the European Parliament. However, each of them represents a different vision that can determine the future of Polish democracy. Eventually, after a brutal campaign that heavily relied on state apparatus, Duda has marginally won with 51,03% of all the votes. The outcome of elections demonstrates how polarized Polish society is and that the populist government is very likely to cement existing divisions.

Political chaos as the aftermath of the pandemic

Initially, the first round of the elections was about to take place on May 10. The ruling national-conservative party Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość) was motivated to held elections that day despite ongoing pandemic of COVID-19. According to the polls, the incumbent president Andrzej Duda could convincingly win his second term already in the first round of the elections. However, the public health conditions put elections in question and caused the crisis between Law and Justice and its minor coalition partner[1]. The decision to postpone the elections took place just a few days ahead of the planned date of voting.

The postponed elections have encouraged the main opposition block – the Civic Coalition (Koalicja Obywatelska) to change their candidate who was selected in the party’s primaries. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska, the deputy speaker of the Polish parliament – Sejm, had been losing popular support in various polls. She decided to boycott elections, which were planned at the peak of the pandemic. The polls had shown that she could secure 3-4% percent of votes. Ultimately, the liberal mayor of Warsaw – Rafał Trzaskowski took her place in the race. The introduction of the new candidate caused a challenge for the Civic Coalition because each new candidate received less than a week to collect 100 000 signatures that are required by the authorities to register the candidacy. Trzaskowski, however, managed to mobilize party members and various groups of supporters, which resulted in more than 1.6 million signatures. The prompt collection of signatures confirmed in the eyes of the public that he may be the main opposition challenger to Andrzej Duda

The mayor of Warsaw – the last hope of opposition?           

The brutal presidential campaign only exemplified the degree of polarization in the Polish society. The campaign before the first round turned out to be relatively calm, where most of the candidates had to show their conciliatory side. However, due to the course, the intensity of the competition had revealed long-lasting divisions in Poland. Since 2005, the Polish political scene is dominated by the two previously mentioned parties. As a result, the narrative of most other candidates focused on breaking the status quo on the political scene in Poland. The role of the third candidate in this campaign played independent green-centrist Szymon Hołownia – former TV presenter and catholic journalist.

This conciliatory story was also present in the campaign of Rafał Trzaskowski who needed to scrap an image of the representative of liberal big cities. Instead, his strategy was to acknowledge some of the welfare policies introduced by Law and Justice’s government, including programs that provided families 500 zloty (approx. 115 EUR per child until the age of 18. Another aspect of his campaign relied on supporting the role of local self-governance in Polish administration. The aim was to present Trzaskowski as a mayor of Warsaw rather than the deputy leader of the main opposition party. During the campaign, the mayor of Warsaw focused on visiting small and middle-sized cities across the country, which are equivalent to swing states in a highly polarized society of Poland.

However, Trzaskowski faced a significant obstacle from the state apparatus. Except for limited time to collect signatures, the mayor of Warsaw was the main object of scrutiny of the public media that are controlled by the ruling party. Since late 2015, when Law and Justice won parliamentary elections, the government introduced laws that allow them to replace the management of public broadcasters and thus influence the content that is highly dependent on the ruling party’s agenda. The reporting of the Polish broadcaster raised concerns among international observers in the past. For instance, Reporters Without Borders stated that Poland’s public media “have been transformed into government propaganda mouthpieces”[2]. It is important to highlight that 37% of Poles, especially from rural areas, have only access to publicly available television channels that do not include other information channels than the one provided by the public broadcaster[3].  In the reporting of the Polish television, Trzaskowski was portrayed as an elitist and cosmopolitan politician who neglects his duties as a mayor of Warsaw.

In particular, public broadcaster reminded its viewers that mayor of Warsaw singed so called “LGBT charter” that includes antidiscriminatory regulations and sexual education according to standards of the World Health Organization. As a result, pro-government media escalated the narrative that Trzaskowski is the enemy of the “traditional family”. The acceptance of LGBT-rights still on a very low level in Poland. According to the EUROBAROMETER survey in 2019, the acceptance for marriage equality in Poland is on the level o 45% in comparison to the European average that is 69%[4].

Radicalism and vote buying as successful campaigning methods

By accentuating homophobic narrative, the ruling party hoped to consolidate and mobilize their conservative voters especially in the eastern part of the country, which is traditional base of the ruling party. In addition, this narrative aims to attract voters of far-right party Confederation (Konfederacja) which got to the parliament in October 2019. Moreover, Andrzej Duda decided to sign “Family charter” that promises to “defend children from LGBT ideology”. Similar documents have been signed by a large number of local authorities that are mainly under Law and Justice control. These documents were declaring some municipalities or even regions as “free from LGBT ideology”. In addition, Duda himself exacerbated this conflict by condemning the LGBT community as worse than “neo-bolshevism”. This is not a new strategy for the Law and Justice as they successfully attempted to antagonizing society in the past. Using the “LGBT ideology” narrative has led to the party’s victory in the European elections in 2019.

To tip the balance towards Duda’s victory, the ruling party introduced several measures to improve the turnout in the segments of society that traditionally supports Law and Justice. First of all, the campaign involved government leaders, including the Prime Minister – Mateusz Morawiecki, who toured around the country to encourage elder members of society to participate in elections by promising additional benefits for the elderly including the financial aid for holidays The support for Law and Justice and Andrzej Duda is the highest among the oldest group of voters. However, as a potential risk group for COVID-19, many of them decided to abstain from voting in their polling stations during the first round of voting. This strategy turned out to be successful as the number of elder voters increased from 55,4 to 61,9% between two election rounds. However, the most bizarre example of vote buying was a contest named “Battle for the Fire Trucks”. Ministry of Interior decided to fund a fire truck for municipality below 20 thousand inhabitants with the highest turnout in each of 16 regions.

Results. Polarization at its best

The final results of run-off gave Andrzej Duda marginal victory over Rafał Trzaskowski by just 1,06% (that is a bit over 400 thousand votes). This is the thinnest margins in the history of Polish elections since the end of communism. In addition, both candidates received more than 10 million votes. In fact, the turnout in the elections was 13% higher than 5 years ago and the highest since the democratic transition. However, rather than showing the evidence for political participation that is a sign of mature democracies, this is proof of the long-lasting divisions in Polish society. Some scholars argue that the prominent presence of populist parties in the domestic politics of Central and Eastern Europe increases the election turnout[5]. The populist party, in this case – Law and Justice, mobilize both voters who are afraid of further degradation of democratic values, but also among party’s supporters who benefit from various benefits.

Despite the lack of official endorsement of other opposition candidates, most voters decided to support Trzaskowski instead of Duda. Even the electorate of Confederation’s candidate – Krzysztof Bosak divided into almost two equal parts.

In terms of geographical distribution, Andrzej Duda was the winner in 6 out of 16 regions, mainly in the eastern part of the country. Despite that, in these regions, the vast majority of voters supported Duda. In more than 650 polling stations, he received at least 90% of the votes which represent more than 170 thousand votes. In contrast, Trzaskowski dominated not only the biggest cities but also the votes from abroad. Among Poles living abroad more than 500.000registered to vote. Almost 75% of them decided to support the mayor of Warsaw.

The fact that COVID-19 pandemic varies between countries with big Polish diaspora (e.g. the United Kingdom) the ballots were distributed only by post. However, many electors complained that their voting packages were not delivered on time. The others were lacking stamps that validated received ballots. As a result, Trzaskowski’s team plans to file the formal protest to the Supreme Court[6]. However, no one expects that these protests will be a subject of fair investigation as the independence for the judiciary is under a permanent threat since 2015. For instance, the chamber responsible for electoral protests was created by the current government and the new law allowed the government for the indirect election of chambers’ judges.

The concern about the election’s standards was also raised by international observers, for instance the report of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)[7]. While the organization of the election itself did not provide any questions, OSCE observers highlighted Duda’s advantage in the reporting of the national television as “the format and content did not correspond to journalistic standards and resembled rather a campaign spot for the incumbent”.

Implications of the results

Presidential elections in 2020 were the last ones of the long marathon that was lasting since 2018. Until 2023, Poland will probably not experience another election. This means that the ruling party can focus on implementing new policies. Some of the high-level government politicians signal that one of the potential areas that may be on the agenda is regulation are private media. For the last 5 years, the topic of “re-polonizing” private media through the de-concentration of ownership has been under the radar of the government[8]. Already during the presidential election, the incumbent president accused some of the foreign-owned outlets of interference in the campaign and promoting “German interests”. Another aspect that is often mentioned is the weakening of local self-governance by transferring a significant amount of revenues from the local to the central budget. Finally, some politicians of Law and Justice suggest that another step could be related to the higher education, which is “influenced by the ideas of Western liberal-left”[9].

Having in mind these plans, as the president comes from the same political camp as the government party, the aforementioned plans may not be particularly constrained. On the other hand, Duda’s second term is his final one and his political future does not rely on support from the party. At the election night, Duda’s speech was more dovish than in the past. Another reason why controversial plans of the Polish government may not be fully realized is the weak parliamentary majority, which may not stand the test of another crisis.

On the other hand, the result of Trzaskowski shows that he has received a significant mandate to be considered as one of the actual leaders of the biggest opposition block. Trzaskowski will serve as a mayor of Warsaw for another 3 years. During this time, he will have to maneuver between local and state politics, which could be considered as a challenge. However, Warsaw as a capital city plays is important role in the national politics. Therefore, Trzaskowski and other leaders of Civic Coalition have the unique opportunity to rebrand the image of the opposition based on the strong result in the presidential elections and through the support of other municipal and local authorities.


[1] See J.Turunen “Poland. Elections with no Ballot”, Baltic Worlds Online Election Coverage, published May 19, 2020. Available at:




[5] Leininger, A. & Meijers, M.J. (2020) “Do Populist Parties Increase Voter Turnout? Evidence from over 40 Years of Electoral History in 31 European Democracies”. Political Studies.





  • by Maciej Sychowiec

    Ph.D. student at the Department of Political Science, University of Gothenburg. In his PhD thesis, he deals with the variation in creditworthiness among advanced democracies. Other research interests include populism, quality of government, Central-Eastern Europe and the Baltic Sea countries.

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