Trump Ally Wins in Poland, Boosting Nationalist Makeover
Andrzej Duda, Poland’s president. (Photographer: Erin Schaff/The New York Times/Bloomberg)

Trump Ally Wins in Poland, Boosting Nationalist Makeover

Poland’s governing party beat back the biggest threat to its nationalist transformation during its half-decade rule, with incumbent Andrzej Duda narrowly winning Sunday’s presidential election.

In near-record turnout, Duda won 51% of votes, the state electoral commission said on Monday. The challenger, Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, conceded defeat just before the final results were given.

The victory will let Duda, a political ally of President Donald Trump, and the ruling Law & Justice party maintain their momentum in reshaping Poland from a nation hailed as a model of post-communist change to one battling against the European Union’s democratic values.

With another term and general elections three years away, Law & Justice can continue its drive to overhaul courts, education, media and other aspects of Polish life even as the European Union denounces the changes. It also leaves the country of 38 million outside of the bloc’s mainstream along with Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Hungary.

Poland has much in common with Trump’s America as the us-against-them rhetoric redrew the electoral landscape. Trump has been a vocal supporter of Law & Justice and hosted Duda in the White House just before the first round of the election last month.

Duda’s victory is set to “pave the way for a complete state capture” by Law & Justice, said Piotr Buras and Pawel Zerka of the European Council on Foreign Relations. A second term can allow the government to “dismantle the country’s already damaged system of checks and balances – in a similar way that already happened in Hungary.”

Trump Ally Wins in Poland, Boosting Nationalist Makeover

To engineer the victory during the worst economic downturn since the collapse of communism, Duda ramped up his nationalist rhetoric while casting gays, immigrants, the foreign media as well as Germany as the enemies of Poland. The government also unleashed one of the biggest Covid-relief plans for workers and companies among emerging markets.

Financial markets were little moved on Monday, with the zloty weakening 0.5% against the euro along with most other emerging-market currencies and Warsaw’s WIG20 stock index gaining 0.2%.

Media ‘Imbalance’

Unable to run again, Duda has little motivation to seek compromise despite winning by a small margin. After it lost control over parliament’s upper house in last October’s general election, Law & Justice didn’t swerve from its path.

In fact, Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro said on Sunday that the ruling coalition must do more to eliminate the “imbalance” in the country’s media landscape.

During the campaign, the incumbent criticized foreign-owned media for critical coverage. Meanwhile, international election monitors blasted pro-Duda public television for failing in its “legal duty to provide balanced and impartial coverage,” while playing on anti-Semitic themes.

“We must look after the basic mechanisms of democracy, including fair media coverage of what’s happening,” Ziobro told public television. “We can’t close our eyes.”

Difficult Message

Trzaskowski’s aides complained of voting “irregularities” and floated the prospect of challenging the result on Sunday, when exit polls predicted a closer race. On Monday, they declined to comment on potential protests.

The victory sends a difficult message to Brussels and Berlin. Germany pays the biggest chunk of the EU’s bills and Poland is the biggest net beneficiary of the bloc’s funds. While the financial relationship is clear, the ideological drift has been just as apparent.

Occupied by the coronavirus crisis and Brexit, EU leaders have struggled with nationalist governments rejecting its liberal and multicultural agenda.

Duda eked out the win after the coronavirus cut into his wide advantage. But one aspect of the vote was clear: Trzaskowski motivated nearly half of the electorate in the face of a revved-up state apparatus seeking to discredit him.

“The high turnout and close to 50% backing for a liberal candidate underscore that it’s not inevitable that the illiberals, populists and nationalists are in the ascendancy globally,” said Tim Ash, a senior emerging market sovereign strategist at Bluebay Asset Management.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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