If there was a prize for the European country with the most unsuccessful centre-left of recent times, Poland would be hard to beat. Its centre-left forces have been so far out of the picture that for the last ten years electoral contests have all been primarily between two rival right-of-centre parties.
And so it was on Sunday in the first round of the Polish presidential election. Andrzej Duda from the conservative Law and Justice party led narrowly with 35.3% from incumbent Bronisław Komorowski, backed by the more liberal Civic Platform, on 33.3%. Third was a rock star, Pawel Kukiz, who had 20.8%. Magdalena Ogórek, representing the Democratic Left Alliance, could manage only a distant fifth place with 2.4%. (Official results here, based on 50 of 51 districts reporting.)
But while the left’s poor showing was no surprise, Sunday was a major embarrassment for the opinion pollsters, coming only three days after their poor showing in the British election. Their consensus had been that Komorowski would not be troubled; until the last week, polls routinely put him between 15 and 20 percentage points ahead of Duda.
The race seemed to tighten a week out, but the polls still tipped a clear margin for Komorowski. A Millward Brown poll published on Thursday, for example, gave him a 12 point lead in the first round, increasing to 13 in the second. Having now trailed in the first round, albeit narrowly, Komorowski must now be worried about the runoff, to be held Sunday week, 24 May. (As in Britain, the exit polls on the day pretty much got it right.)
Poland runs a Westminster system, so the president is mostly just a figurehead. But with parliamentary elections scheduled for this September, the presidential vote is significant as a sign of which way the wind is blowing – much like similar polls in Slovakia and Romania last year and in Croatia this year.
Law & Justice and Civic Platform worked together in opposition prior to the 2005 election, at which they emerged as the two largest parties. But coalition talks between them failed, and Law & Justice formed a minority government. When that fell in 2007, Civic Platform won the subsequent election and has been in government ever since – an unprecedented success in Poland. In mid-2010 it added the presidency, when Komorowski defeated Law & Justice’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
Inevitably the weakness on the left has drawn Civic Platform towards the centre, but it remains a broadly conservative party, affiliated with the European People’s Party, not with the liberal/centrist group. But it is pro-market and pro-European integration, whereas Law & Justice is more interventionist, nationalist and eurosceptic. Law & Justice is also closer to the Catholic church, a powerful influence in Poland.
Sunday’s result shows that a third term for Civic Platform is no sure thing. Its former leader Donald Tusk resigned last year to take up the post of president of the European Council (effectively, non-executive president of the EU), and new prime minister Ewa Kopacz may be finding him a hard act to follow. A win for Komorowski would be a morale boost; a win for Duda would be a bad omen indeed.
So the link with Britain isn’t just a matter of bad opinion polling. Both results also suggest that the European drift back to the right, in evidence since about the beginning of last year, is continuing. In addition to the second round in Poland, the next signal to watch for will be the Spanish municipal elections, also on 24 May.
*UPDATE 11am Tuesday, Polish time*
With the last district reporting, the margin has narrowed slightly, Duda finishing on 34.8%, Komorowski 33.8% and Kukiz still 20.8%. Doesn’t change the general picture, but it means the exit poll was spot on in picking Duda’s support, although it understated Komorowski a little. The second round looks wide open, with Kukiz potentially the kingmaker.