Poland votes like a divided nation. But can the elections bring true change?

It’s been Poland’s strangest presidential election campaign in living memory. Granted, it’s the first that’s taken place during a pandemic, but in the last three months the country hasn’t just experienced one of the strictest lockdown regimes around, it has seen a brutal political battle. The ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) has fought for the re-election of president Andrzej Duda by any means necessary. On Sunday, Poles will head to polling stations – and the fact they’re doing it at all, given that Covid-19 has been on the rise again since the easing of lockdown rules a couple of weeks ago, is questionable.

The ideological stranglehold PiS (which picked up 43.5% of the vote in last year’s parliamentary elections) has had on the electorate for the past five years took some serious blows at the height of the pandemic. Originally, the presidential election date was set for 10 May – when the strict lockdown rules still applied. Desperate to have the vote and secure another term for their candidate, PiS began their manoeuvres early: they suggested a compulsory postal vote, even floating that idea that failing to submit the ballot could be penalised by three years in prison for “misappropriation” of an official document. Then the ruling party had the idea of prolonging the presidential office term from five to seven years. If such ad hoc machinations sound undemocratic, it’s worth remembering that PiS has engaged in various violations of the law, for which it has been disciplined by the EU. More to the point the party has divided Polish society into firm pro-PiS supporters and a less-defined anti-PiS faction, consisting of liberals (Civic Coalition party) and the left (Lewica party).

Other questionable moves pulled by PiS during lockdown include a stealth attempt to once again ban abortion completely. Previous attempts had prompted mass protests, which they assumed would not take place during the pandemic. The party also failed to offer any solutions for workers in the current crisis – a so-called “anti-virus shield” gave companies more power to fire employees, hitting the most precarious layer of society, which PiS considers their base. All of this angered the voting public.

PiS continues reshaping the rule of law and political institutions as they please – accusations of abuse of power seem to be of no concern. But on Sunday it faces a more serious threat: the popular Civic Coalition party candidate and current mayor of Warsaw, Rafał Trzaskowski. Trzaskowski could easily pass as a Polish Emmanuel Macron: he is good-looking, young, well-educated, speaks foreign languages, ostentatiously comes from the intelligentsia, but is still a devoted family man. He offers a polite vision of European-ness and western-style free-market politics, which some Poles miss and aspire to. Others, of course, influenced by PiS’s relentless anti-EU propaganda, hate such an outlook.

PiS immediately started a smear campaign against Trzaskowski, with the liberal candidate presented as an LGBT rainbow warrior and a Bolshevik (in reality, he’s only moderately to the left and has never offered a firm pro-LGBT stance). If Trzaskowski were to win the election, he could pose a serious blow to the PiS influence on Polish society. Even if the president’s power is limited, he can block laws passed from parliament. It would be an ideological blow to PiS’s aims of achieving absolute, authoritarian power.

During Duda’s campaign, PiS had spread the most vicious anti-LGBT propaganda. In his electoral programme, Duda issued a so-called Family Charter, vowing to protect “traditional”, Catholic families from the influence of the LGBT ideology. It is not dissimilar to the anti-LGBT approach in Putin’s Russia. Meanwhile, the vast numbers of households without computers were excluded from home-schooling during the lockdown, with no attempt from the government to provide help.

Perhaps recent scandals in the Catholic church will make some voters ditch PiS. Paedophilia in the church has been revealed in two investigative documentaries that have been watched by millions. It will be hard for PiS to hold on to their image as the guardians of Christian and family values if they can’t stand up to the power and influence of the church it is aligned with. There is also widespread dismay at PiS’s incompetence, with reports from Poles living abroad of issues with their postal voting forms, such as ballots not arriving in time.

Regardless, perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the election is that even if the liberal candidate was to win, this would hardly indicate a dramatic change in the balance of power. Poland has been ruled by a conservative-neoliberal duopoly for the last 30 years. Leftist candidate Robert Biedroń of Lewica, while being the first openly gay presidential hopeful, has lost all momentum and sits very low in the polls.

When push comes to shove, PiS can go against its usual rhetoric and pose as more pro-western – or at least, pro-US. This week president Duda went to the White House to meet Donald Trump, an ally in growing rightwing authoritarianism. However, despite any western outlook, this is not necessarily the alliance liberal Poles are after.

The outcome is uncertain, but it looks like Trzaskowski may force a second-round run-off. Either way, Poland is caught between the prospect of Viktor Orbán-style anti-democratic governance or neoliberal neglect of workers’ rights, regardless of whose candidate wins. One thing is certain: as long as PiS rule persists, there’s no chance of the party’s long-running lockdown on freedoms being lifted anytime soon.