Poland's choice: A test of populism

Poland's choice: A test of populism

On Sunday, voters in Poland will cast ballots in a highly charged, high-stakes election for president. The two frontrunners are current President Andrzej Duda, an ultra-conservative ally of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, and Rafal Trzaskowski, the liberal mayor of Warsaw.

If none of the five candidates wins 50 percent of votes, Sunday's top two vote-getters will face off in a second round on July 12.

There are two reasons why the results will be studied across Europe and beyond. First, it's a referendum on a populist government, in power since 2015, which has pushed Poland into conflict with the European Union.


Second, though Poland's president has much less power than the prime minister and can't be a formal member of any party, he can veto laws passed by parliament, and the current president is a crucial ally for the party leading the current governing coalition.

Why all the controversy? Current president Andrzej Duda has aligned with his former party, Poland's ruling Law and Justice, known by its Polish acronym PiS. This party has used its five years in power to try to consolidate control of Polish politics in ways the EU says violate its rules on democracy.

For example, PiS has used a variety of legislative tactics to stack Poland's courts, including its two highest judicial bodies, with politically loyal judges. It has used lawsuits and other pressure tactics to intimidate and censor the media.

In response, the European Commission has charged Poland's government with violating EU rules and triggered a so-called Article 7 disciplinary process. This means that a unanimous vote of all EU members could strip Poland of its EU voting rights. That won't happen, because the government of EU member Hungary has made similar moves against rule of law and would veto any move against its allies in Poland. The EU-Poland standoff continues.

The election is likely to be close. Duda will probably draw the most votes on Sunday but fail to win a majority. That means a runoff with Trzaskowski, a late entrant to represent the centrist Civic Platform, which governed Poland from 2007 to 2015.

Trzaskowski, who soundly defeated a PiS opponent to become Warsaw's mayor in 2018, will be a formidable challenger. If he wins, he's liable to veto all PiS legislation that the EU doesn't like, and PiS won't have enough votes in parliament to override him.

COVID-19 has played a role in this election. Lockdowns forced the authorities to postpone the vote from its original date of May 10. PiS wanted the vote rescheduled for the earliest possible date, probably because it calculated that the lockdown's economic fallout would hurt Duda more and more over time.

Duda's strategy. Duda has worked to energize his socially conservative, and primarily rural, base. For example, he has warned that "gay ideology" poses a greater threat to Poland than Communism did, a message that might well resonate with the 56 percent of Poles who told pollsters last year they reject gay marriage and the 76 percent who oppose adoption by same-sex couples.

He's also enlisted help from his friend Donald Trump, who is popular in Poland. (A Pew survey from January found that 51 percent of Poles—vs 13 percent of Germans—have confidence in Trump to "do the right thing in world affairs.") Duda was in Washington on Wednesday for President Trump's first visit with a foreign official since February. Trump has hinted that he might reward Poland by transferring some or all of the 9,500 US troops he's pledged to withdraw from Germany to Poland. Duda has suggested in the past that US troops might be housed in Poland at a place he calls "Fort Trump."

Bottom-line: Can populists remain popular after five years in power? Voters of all stripes across Europe will be watching Poland this weekend in hopes of finding out.

This time last year, world health experts were speculating about why Africa appeared to have escaped the worst of the global pandemic. Younger populations? Natural immunity created by exposure to past viruses? Something else?

They can stop wondering. Africa is now in the grip of a COVID emergency.

More Show less

Listen: Stanford historian Niall Ferguson joins Ian Bremmer on the GZERO World podcast to talk about the geopolitics of disaster. Throughout human history we seem to be unable to adequately prepare for catastrophes (natural or human-caused) before they strike. Why is that? And as we emerge from the greatest calamity of our lifetimes in the COVID-19 pandemic and look to the plethora of crises that climate change has and will cause, what can we do to lessen the blow?

Subscribe to the GZERO World Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they're published.

Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi barred two Republican members from serving on the Jan. 6 commission. What's going on?

Well, the Jan. 6 commission was designed to be a bipartisan commission, taking input from members from Democrats and Republicans. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had the opportunity to make recommendations but the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, could always veto those recommendations. In this case, she did, saying no to two members, Jim Banks and Jim Jordan, both of whom are strongly aligned with President Trump and who voted against certifying the election results in 2020. The Republicans for the most part see the Jan. 6 commission as an opportunity to score political points against them, and the Democrats say this is going to be a fair, non-biased, and nonpartisan investigation into what happened on Jan. 6, starting with a hearing next week with some of the police officers who were involved in the battle with the protesters inside the Capitol.

More Show less

In his New York Times op-ed, David Brooks says the US is facing an identity crisis — protecting liberal and progressive values at home while doing little to stop autocrats elsewhere. But has the US really abandoned its values abroad just because it's withdrawing from Afghanistan? Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Charles Dunst take out the Red Pen to argue that the US can advance democracy without being the world's sheriff.

More Show less

When the Tokyo Olympics begin on Friday, Japan watchers will be following more than just the performance of Japan's star athletes, including tennis star Naomi Osaka. They will also be tracking the political fortunes of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is taking a big gamble by staging the event — amid a raging pandemic — in the face of strong and longstanding opposition from the Japanese public. What are the stakes for Suga, particularly with elections on the horizon? Eurasia Group senior analyst Ali Wyne explains.

More Show less

YouTube pulls Bolsonaro's rants: Google-owned YouTube pulled down a series of videos on the channel of Brazil's populist President Jair Bolsonaro, accusing him of spreading misinformation about the pandemic. YouTube removed more than a dozen clips for touting quack cures for coronavirus or claiming, in defiance of scientific experts, that masks don't reduce COVID transmissions. Last year, Twitter and Facebook also removed some content from Bolsonaro's feeds for similar reasons. But critics say that YouTube's move is too little too late, because Bolsonaro has been spreading misinformation about COVID since the pandemic began. Many Brazilians hold him personally responsible for the country's abysmal pandemic response, which has led to almost 550,000 deaths, the second worst toll in the world. Will YouTube's move change Bolsonaro's message? His weekly address to the nation, where he converses not only with government ministers but also various conspiracy theorists and loons, is broadcast on YouTube. Surely he doesn't want to risk losing that — or does he?

More Show less

Boycotts! Bans! Protests! Drugs! Think you've got gold medal knowledge about politics at the Olympics? Test what you know with this special Tokyo Olympics Quiz. And to stay current on all the latest political stories at the Games and around the world, subscribe here to Signal, our daily newsletter. Now, without further ado, the first question is...

More Show less

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter, Signal

GZERO World with Ian Bremmer. Watch episodes now

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal

GZERO World with Ian Bremmer. Watch episodes now

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal