WARSAW — Polish President Andrzej Duda, the leader of the conservative party Law and Justice, was reelected July 16 at the end of the second round of the national elections by a narrow majority of 51.2%.
And at a crossroad of the Old Continent’s history — with the legitimacy of the European Union more and more called into question, and with tensions between national sovereigntists and internationalists, and progressives and conservatives, more acute than ever — the recent Polish election has rapidly taken the form of a civilizational choice that would determine the country’s long-term destiny.
The unprecedented mobilization of Polish citizens is evidence of that. Indeed, despite the specter of the coronavirus epidemic, 67.9% of eligible voters went to the polls. In 2015, there was a 55% participation rate in the second round of voting.
Duda was facing the mayor of Warsaw, Rafal Trzaskowski, candidate of the main progressive opposition party, Civic Coalition.
Whereas Duda was elected initially in 2015 with a conservative program focusing on social policies in favor of the elderly and poor families in 2015, the Polish president centered his 2020 campaign for a second term more on the preservation and reaffirmation of the founding Christian values of Poland.
In the country where around 90% of the population is Catholic and where about 40% live in rural areas, this strategy proved to be effective, but the opposition to which the president has been exposed, mostly led by pro-EU inhabitants of big cities, hasn’t stopped growing during his first mandate.
Two Anthropological Visions
Generally speaking, the cultural debates surrounding the presidential campaign took precedence over the other topics of concern for most Polish citizens, including economic life. And the candidates’ ideological pronouncements were, from the outset, particularly contrasting and divisive, especially on topics related to family, marriage and the values that shape a nation.
For instance, while Trzaskowski signed the “LGBT Charter” in February 2019 shortly after becoming the mayor of Warsaw and attended the city’s Gay Pride Parade, his conservative opponent counterattacked by introducing a “Family Charter” on the eve of the presidential election, with the aim of reaffirming traditional values and stopping the advance of the “LGBT” political agenda within Polish society.
“There are two antagonistic anthropological visions confronting each other in our society,” Archbishop Marek Jędraszewski of Kraków told the Register. According to him, there is, on the one hand, a Christian vision of human life and of society, whose moral system is founded on the Decalogue. In such a society, the human person is seen as an image of the Creator God.
On the other hand, there is a vision of the human person that makes absolute freedom itself the highest achievement of life. “The spread of the slogan ‘Róbta co chceta’ [‘Do whatever you want’] among the Polish youth in the 1990s already marked the beginning of the excesses in the conception of human freedom that we know today,” he said.
The deep divide between these two anthropological approaches has intensified with the debates surrounding the legitimacy of the European Union, where, according to critics, member countries risk losing cultural distinctiveness in favor of a uniform federation of countries ruled by a common system of political and social values.
“We speak a lot about the so-called European values, but it is a pretty vague concept,” Archbishop Jędraszewski continued, deploring the fact that abortion or euthanasia are considered values that are inseparable from human rights nowadays.
According to him, the very foundation of the Polish nation is currently at stake. “The Europe we should protect is that where we were born, that which dates back from 1,050 years ago, when Prince Mieszko I got baptized, bringing Poland into Christian Europe. It is in this very moment that our Polish nation and its state were born; therefore, our whole history is based on Christianity, since we know very little about our history before this crucial event of 966.”
In his view, separated from its Christian roots and its transcendent dimension, Europe is rendered meaningless.
Although Catholics still represent a huge majority in the country, almost half of the population voted for the presidential candidate of the progressive Civic Coalition party, which is openly opposed to the Church on many societal aspects.
This state of affairs seems to reflect, in some ways, the internal divisions of the Catholic world itself, as a significant part of the faithful and clerics in Europe still align themselves with the post-1968 progressive Catholic movements.
The political candidate best representing this current of thought in the presidential election was journalist and writer Szymon Hołownia, who came third, with 13.9% of votes in the first presidential ballot. Considered an outsider candidate because he was not affiliated with any political party, he advocated a declericalized and progressive Catholicism. “He wanted a secularized Poland, with a clear distinction between the state and the Church, and he also wanted to remove crosses from public spaces,” Wlodzimierz Redzioch, a Catholic Polish journalist and columnist who has dedicated several books to the Vatican, told the Register.
Hołownia, he said, was representative of the “anticlerical Catholics,” those who “don’t like the Church of St. John Paul II, nor that of today, and who often use the fight against sexual abuses to attack the institution.”
His stance, which benefited from the support of many national media, attracted enough Catholic voters to prevent Duda’s victory in the first round. Hołownia then endorsed Trzaskowski for the second round.
“The Polish society has changed a lot since the 1990s, under the influence of the European Union, the Erasmus Generation, and the Polish media, three-quarters of which belong to foreign publishing groups, mainly German,” Redzioch said, adding that the young generation is the first one that hasn’t lived under the teachings of St. John Paul II and, consequently, don’t know them.
A Pro-Family Presidency
President Duda, often accused by his opponents of instrumentalizing religion for political purposes (especially for going to the Sanctuary of Częstochowa on the night of his victory), makes no secret of his Catholic faith and his will to politically reaffirm the principles associated with it — notably through the strengthening of the institution of the family.
During his first term, he took a series of measures designed to support families and childbirths, including the “500 Plus” program, which provides for a monthly payment of a PLN500 subsidy (around $130) for the second and each additional child regardless of the parents’ income (and beginning with the first child, for the poorest families), and “Mama Plus,” a state program that guarantees the mothers of more than four kids a minimum old-age pension.
Duda also announced the introduction of a PNL500 subsidy for each child, which would be added to the current “300 Plus” subsidy granted to every school-aged child at the beginning of each academic year.
“We speak very little about the success of this family policy abroad, but we should highlight the fact that this ‘500 Plus’ program strongly helped eradicate the poverty of families with poor wages,” Redzioch said.
Moreover, according to Archbishop Jędraszewski, Duda has been giving parents greater autonomy in their children’s education, especially in the sensitive context of the advance of gender studies and sex-education classes for young children in the EU. “He is aware that children don’t belong to the state, which must only be a help in the educational process,” the archbishop said. “And just like he did during his first mandate, he must continue defending a healthy conception of marriage as it is expressed in the Polish Constitution; that is, as a union of a man and a woman.”
Defense of Life
It is on the question of the defense of the sacredness of life that Duda’s Catholic backers are more reserved in their support. Although he often has expressed his conviction that the dignity of every human life should be respected, notably by supporting the 2017 citizens’ initiative against eugenic abortion, most pro-life activists reckon that he does not go far enough.
This is the perspective of Magdalena Korzekwa-Kaliszuk — a lawyer, psychologist and author of numerous books and articles about faith, education and her pro-life engagement — who laments a certain “passivity” on the part of the government regarding the protection of human life over the past five years.
“President Duda promised he would sign the draft law resulting from the popular initiative against eugenic abortion, but the Parliament has not accepted it yet. So I would expect him to use his constitutional right to launch his own legislative initiative against abortion, which he hasn’t done in five years of presidency,” Korzekwa-Kaliszuk said. “Even though his draft law would have to be approved by the Parliament first, such an initiative from the president would put this important topic back on the table.”
Nevertheless, this mother of two children sees in the reelection of Duda a chance for Polish Catholics. She believes his adherence to his Catholic faith is a guarantee that “he won’t sign any bill against life, family or freedom of conscience.”
But, ultimately, the strengthening of the Christian roots in Poland will not happen, in her view, without a greater involvement of the Church authorities in the public debate — especially on the part of bishops, whose voice can still have a decisive impact on the political orientations of the coming years.
Solène Tadié is the Register’s Rome-based Europe correspondent.