Poland's President Andrzej Duda campaigns for his re-election in Warsaw on February 19, 2020. Image Credit: AP

Just over two weeks ago, Polish rock musician Kazik Staszewski topped his nation’s hit charts with Your Pain Is Better Than Mine. But no sooner had it made it No. 1 than all of the charts that week on Poland’s Radio Three simply disappeared. The chart never happened. Within minutes of Staszewski’s topping the hit charts, it was wiped clean.

So why the sudden censorship? Why the erasure? Why the deafening silence?

Well, for all of Staszewski’s musical prowess, the powers that be judged otherwise, particularly one lyric’s reference to Jaroslaw Kaczynski. He’s the founder of the Law and Justice party, better known by its Polish acronym Pis. He served as prime minister while his twin, Lech, was President until his death in a plane crash a little over a decade ago. And as things go in Poland right now, the ruling Pis doesn’t take too kindly to criticism — either musically or politically — hence pulling the radio plug on Staszewski’s tune. The Pis moves to its own beat — not rock ‘n’ roll.

Under the Pis, Poland has shifted to the right, traditional Roman Catholic teachings have become party ethos, and Pis’ remodelling of the judicial system to appoint a more conservative-minded and Pis-aligned judges and prosecutors has run afoul of the European Union. It is playing fast and loose with the democratic freedoms hard won since the fall of the Berlin Wall just over three decades ago and, in the opinion European Union officials and elected Members of the European Parliament, is undermining the political and democratic prerequisites for EU membership.

But if Pis has had a tight grip on Poland since coming to power in 2015, there’s a distinct feeling there right now it might be coming unhinged. On Thursday evening, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki challenged the Sejm — the Lower House — to back his party and its right-wing partners in a vote of confidence. The coalition has a slim five-seat majority.

Poor handling of pandemic

The Sejm had been debating the performance of Health Minister Lukasz Szumowski during the pandemic. Poland’s National Health Service was woefully unprepared, its doctors, nurses and hospital staff lacked proper supplies of personal protective equipment — leaving Szumowski vulnerable for fumbling his portfolio. The radio chart debacle didn’t help either — nor did widespread criticism that senior PiS officials and ministers openly flouted the anti-coronavirus measures they put in place for the nation of 38 million.

But there’s also the pressing issue now of a presidential election, rescheduled for June 28.

The election had originally been planned for May 10 and Pis was confident before then that incumbent President Andrzej Duda would be returned. But the pandemic has changed all that. For weeks as the coronavirus crisis grew, Pis ministers insisted the vote would go ahead as scheduled, even suggesting that it would be a mail-in ballot at one stage. That met with howls of indignation and claims that it was trying to fix the outcome. Days before the vote, the government backed down and postponed it until after the crisis had passed. Coronavirus might be waning — so too support for Duda.

One major poll earlier this week showed Duda would lose in a second round to liberal Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski or his other main challenger, television host Szymon Holownia — and Prime Minister Morawiecki’s no-confidence challenge is seen as an attempt to regain the momentum for his party in the three weeks left before the presidential ballot.

Duda's re-election in doubt

Duda’s term ends on August 6 and his recent slump has meant that a second run-off poll two weeks later is inevitable now: No poll shows him capable of winning more than 50 per cent of the votes come June 28.

According to the SWPS survey between the Polish University of Social Sciences and media outlets conducted on May 28-29, Duda, would win the first round but would lose in the second round run-off against either Holownia or Trzaskowski.

Duda would score 32 per cent in the first round, according to the survey. In the second, he would lose to Holownia by 61-39 per cent and to Trzaskowski by 57-43 per cent.

Victory for Duda is crucial to the Pis government’s hopes of implementing its conservative agenda as the president has the right to veto laws and trigger early parliamentary elections.

The position of Mayor of Warsaw has proved in the past to be a very effective springboard on to the national stage in Poland — and the PiS would do well to remember that the late Lech Kaczynski used the post to grow the fledgling party into a winning force at the ballot box

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The centre-liberal Civic Platform party and its smaller partners only persuaded Trzaskowski to run on May 15 when Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska withdrew, in part because she lost support for calling for a boycott of the vote for May 10.

Trzaskowski, 48, is a political scientist who was on scholarships in Oxford and Paris, and has been Warsaw mayor since 2018. He’s also a former MEP and understands the mentality at Strasburg. There, MEPs recently told the EU to tackle alleged attacks on the rule of law in Poland as a matter of urgency.

The European Commission — the cabinet-like body that oversees the day-to-day running of the EU and its budget — has launched a series of legal actions against the Polish government. Until such a time as the European Council — the heads of state from all EU members — decides to act, the reality is that Polish voters will be the final arbiters on the Pis. And June 28 may be the first stage of the process.