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Polish President Tacks Further Right as Reelection Race Tightens

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 7/7/2020 Marek Strzelecki
Andrzej Duda wearing a suit and tie: Andrzej Duda, Poland's president, speaks during a news conference with U.S. President Donald Trump, not pictured, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, June 24, 2020. © Bloomberg Andrzej Duda, Poland's president, speaks during a news conference with U.S. President Donald Trump, not pictured, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, June 24, 2020.

(Bloomberg) -- Polish President Andrzej Duda is tilting further to the right in pursuit of ultra-conservative voters he needs to win Sunday’s runoff election.

Opinion polls show the incumbent has lost his lead over Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski and is in a dead heat just five days before the vote. The ballot is set to determine the fate of the east European nation’s nativist makeover after Duda and his allies in the ruling Law & Justice party upended Poland’s reputation as a model democracy.

As moderates flock to the challenger, the president is veering further to the right to tap voters who backed a nationalist candidate in the election’s first round more than a week ago. On Monday, Duda proposed a constitutional amendment outlawing adoption by gay couples, taking a page from President Vladimir Putin, who just enshrined an effective ban on gay marriage into Russia’s constitution.

“Voters from the center are likely beyond Duda’s reach, so he’s turning sharply to the right,” said Anna Materska-Sosnowska, a political scientist at Warsaw University. “Radical polarization always mobilizes supporters” and that’s what the president’s campaign is after, she said.

‘Absolute Lie’

Duda’s radicalized campaign earned a sharp rebuke from the U.S. envoy in Warsaw after a senior Law & Justice legislator alleged links between the founders of a now U.S.-owned television channel in Poland and the country’s pre-1989 communist military spy network.

“Shame on you for perpetuating what you know is an absolute lie,” Ambassador Georgette Mosbacher, an appointee of President Donald Trump, said on Twitter regarding the allegation. “This is beneath a representative of the Polish people.”

The reprimand undermined Duda’s international credibility, which he’s largely built on his personal relationship with Trump and promises of more American troops to be stationed on Polish soil. The Polish president visited the White House just days before the first round ballot on June 28, earning rave reviews from tightly controlled public broadcasters.

In contrast, Trzaskowski spoke by phone to former U.S. President Barack Obama last week -- showing how U.S. political divisions are being played out in one of the European Union’s biggest nations, bordering both Germany and Russia.

German Bashing

Duda has also hit out at Germany, the destination of a quarter of Polish exports, for alleged interference in the election after Poland’s best-selling tabloid, owned by a Swiss-German media group, printed a critical article about the president’s pardon of a convicted child molester.

An average of the last five opinion polls show Duda and Trzaskowski each with 48.3% support. The president won 43.5% of the vote in the first round on June 28, followed by the Warsaw Mayor with 30.5%.

The far-right candidate advocating a total ban on abortion and EU exit was fourth with 6.8% -- meaning that jointly with his electorate, Duda could get the 50% he needs to win the runoff. But the often rebellious fringe voters may be hard to reach for Duda, who’s campaigning as the candidate of continuity, Materska-Sosnowska said.

Duda’s child-adoption initiative is largely symbolic since Article 18 of Poland’s constitution defines marriage as a “union of a man and a woman,” and married couples are preferred foster parents over single adults. While there’s no explicit ban on gays adopting children in Poland, such decisions are practically unheard of.

‘Real Europeans’

“Children must be safe and protected from adoption by same-sex couples,” Duda said. Trzaskowski replied that he’s also against child adoption by gay couples, but called the topic a non-existent issue.

Much like Putin, Duda and Law & Justice have positioned themselves as the defenders of traditional family values against sinister and often foreign forces seeking to undermine them, including the LGBT movement.

Much of public media’s election coverage has sought to paint Trzaskowski, the son of a famous jazz pianist who speaks five languages, as out of touch with regular voters. Law & Justice deputy chief Joachim Brudzinski called the Warsaw mayor’s supporters “elitist boors” who mistakenly claim that they’re “real Europeans.”

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