Poland’s presidential election on Sunday will be crucial to shaping the country’s future and its strained relations with the EU for at least the next three years and perhaps beyond.
Why runoff gives Poles a clear choice
If outgoing President Andrzej Duda is re-elected for a new five-year term, his allies, the nationalist government led by Law and Justice, will continue their socially conservative policies, their efforts to control independent institutions and the generous distribution program of the State.
If Warsaw’s more liberal mayor Rafal Trzaskowski wins, he has declared that he will defend minorities and use the president’s right to veto legislation to block what he sees as the government’s attempts to politicize the judiciary and attack democratic values.
Mr Trzaskowski says he will cooperate with the government but a victory for it would almost certainly start a war between the two branches of power.
The two men have separate visions for the future of Poland.
What does Andrzej Duda believe?
President Duda, 48, is a lawyer by training. He won a surprising victory in 2015 by representing the young moderate face of the Law and Justice party, which had lost a series of elections under the leadership of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, all-powerful party leader and candidate.
He is a socially conservative Roman Catholic who says he wants to defend the traditional family model.
On the one hand, it supports the popular and generous social protection program of the government, symbolized by the 500+ program, within the framework of which families receive 500 zloty (£ 100; € 110; $ 125) per month for each child up to ‘at the age of 18.
Many Polish families have come out of poverty thanks to government policies and, for the first time since the end of communism in 1989, have the feeling that there is a party that cares about their needs.
This is especially true in villages and small towns, where President Duda won the absolute majority of votes in the first round of the election two weeks ago.
On the other hand, he has promised to protect Polish families from what he calls an imported “LGBT ideology” that aggressively attempts to sexualize Polish children.
In practice, there are no sex education courses in Polish public schools.
Instead, students have broader “family life education” courses, which may include sex education, often led by priests or nuns.
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President Duda is also in favor of legislative changes in government to take greater control over independent institutions, mainly the public media and the judiciary.
The Polish public broadcaster, Polish television, is funded by the taxpayer and is required by its charter to provide balanced coverage of political events.
Instead, his main evening newsletter praised the government and the daily Duda and attacked Mr. Trzaskowski, accusing him of being in league with Jewish and LGBT interest groups.
Duda also strongly supported most of the government’s changes to the judiciary which, according to the EU and several international organizations, have undermined its independence and the rule of law.
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Relations with the EU were strained as a result and Mr. Duda once called it “an imaginary community from which we do not get much”.
Under the current budget, Poland is the main net beneficiary of EU funds.
Et Rafal Trzaskowski?
Mr. Trzaskowski, also 48, is a deputy leader of the center-right Polish Civic Platform party, which ruled Poland between 2007 and 2015, mainly under Donald Tusk before being elected head of the European Council.
His party has always performed better in large metropolitan cities.
In the first round, he won 30.46% of the vote against 43.5% for Mr. Duda, marking his biggest victory in the affluent district of Warsaw, Wilanow.
In an interview with the BBC, Mr Trzaskowski acknowledged that some members of the government in which he was a minister had at times been “somewhat condescending” to voters.
Although he is economically liberal, he said that Law and Justice had correctly identified income inequality as a problem that needed to be addressed with programs like 500+, a policy he supported.
He represents the most liberal wing of the party and, as mayor of Warsaw, participated in the LGBTQ equality marches and proposed to introduce classes in schools in the capital to fight against bullying against minorities.
However, he recently stated that he objects to the adoption of children by same-sex couples, which most Poles are doing according to surveys, after President Duda tabled an amendment to the constitution of the countries to expressly ban it.
As president, Mr. Trzaskowski’s power would be limited mainly to vetoing legislation, since any bill he introduced could be rejected by the majority of the camp in Parliament.
He told the BBC that Poland is still democratic but that its “democracy is under attack” while the government politicizes independent institutions, such as the judiciary, and tries to deprive the local government of its powers.
He said he would veto any attempt to politicize the courts and propose to make the prosecution service independent again.
Under the current government, the Minister of Justice is also the Attorney General, which gives him extraordinary power over the conduct of prosecutions.
As a former Minister for Europe, Mr Trzaskowski said that he wanted Poland to play a more active role in negotiations with the EU.
He fears that once the financial benefits of membership are reduced in the future, the current government’s dislike of certain aspects of the European project could eventually lead to Poland leaving the EU.