X Close

SSEES Research Blog


A showcase of research from UCL's School of Slavonic and East European Studies staff and students


The “Good Change”: Polish populist presidential campaign 2015 and now

By tjmsrol, on 23 June 2020

By Carolin Heilig and Paulina Lenik (FATIGUE Early Stage Researchers)


The 2020 presidential elections in Poland have received international attention on how to proceed with election without compromising on the population’s health, while still acting within the provisions of the constitution. These elections, however, are a potential turning point in the illiberal trajectory that Poland has been on for the last five years – they could also be the final step to solidify the country’s illiberal swerve to a proper illiberal turn (Bustikova/Guasti, 2017). That is the expected outcome if incumbent Andrzej Duda consolidates his support winning the second term in office. In this blog, we focus on Duda’s 2015 and 2020 campaign as the his backing party PiS has become the seasoned “the establishment”. To illustrate this shift we collected budgetary statistics, press releases and the 2015 and 2020 election campaign materials.

To compare Duda’s 2015 and 2020 election campaign in the light of populism, we employ Cas Mudde’s ideational approach, understanding populism as a thin ideology that pitches the “pure people” against the “corrupted elites” and can then be thickened with other ideologies such as nativism (Mudde/Rovira Kaltwasser, 2017). At the core of the thin ideology of populism are the exaltation of the ‘will of the people’ and the preference of substance over procedure in a democracy (Kubik, 2012) (Kubik, 2012). As such, populism is not at odds with democracy per se but with liberal democracy (Albertazzi/Mueller, 2013). Liberal democracy and populist ideology are clashing most strongly in questions of individual rights, freedom of speech and separation of power (ibid.).

Grim expectations: between a turn and a slide

In their distinction between an illiberal turn from an illiberal swerve, Bustikova and Guasti (2017), name three conditions: 1) executive aggrandisement (Bermeo, 2016), which in Poland took place in the form of the judicial reforms and increased government control over national media , 2) contested sovereignty that increases polarisation, most clearly exemplified by the increasingly exclusionary and heteronormative identity politics and 3) the dominant party winning two consecutive elections. Their argument focuses on parliamentary elections, not presidential ones, but the Polish case underlines the importance to include presidential elections in this calculation. The Law and Justice party (PiS) – united with its two small partners Agreement and United Poland as the “United Right”- has set the scene in the 2019 parliamentary elections. The current quest for power is to assure Duda’s victory in the 2020 elections. An opposition-backed president may be more willing to use a veto power to block further executive aggrandisement and manage to overcome deeply rooted divisions within the Polish society.

Presidential elections: a competence refresher

Poland’s political system is semi-presidential. The President is the representative of the State in foreign affairs, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, appoints the Prime Minister and their cabinet, as well as judges to the Supreme Court, common courts, administrative courts and military courts. As Art. 127 of the Polish Constitution specifies, the President of the Republic of Poland shall be elected in universal, equal, and direct elections, conducted by secret ballot, for a 5-year term of office and may be re-elected only for one more term. To run in the election a candidate requires the support by the signatures of at least 100,000 citizens having the right to vote in the elections. If no candidate receives 50% of the votes in the first round of the elections, the two candidates with the most votes will compete in a second round on the 14th day after the first vote.

The legislative competences of the Polish president have received increasing attention under Duda’s presidency since 2015. The President has the right to submit a legislative initiative (Constitution), however, the vast majority of debated initiatives in the Sejm are submitted by the Council of Ministers, Sejm committee or groups of at least 15 Members of the Sejm. Following Art. 122 of the Constitution, the President must sign a legislative act adopted by the Sejm for it to enter into force. He furthermore holds considerable veto power: if he has doubts concerning the appropriateness or purposefulness of an adopted act, the President may apply his veto. The Sejm than has the possibility to reject the President’s veto by majority of 3/5 of qualified votes in the presence of half of the MPs – currently, the United Right falls short of such a majority. The President’s veto is not selective; hence they cannot question only some regulations, but rather the act as a whole. If the President doubts the compliance of the act with the Constitution, he can submit it to the Constitutional Tribunal for examination.

Populists, not officeholders: the 2015 campaign

In 2015, Duda was chosen as PiS’s candidate to challenge PO’s Incumbent president Komorowski. Duda was then a PiS MEP with considerable experience but relatively unknown to many Poles. In the presidential elections, Duda was the face of an ambitious campaign that was underestimated by the complacent incumbent Komorowski, who had been leading in polls before the election (Markowski, 2016).). Eventually, Duda secured 51.55% of the votes in the second round, ever since connecting his presidency closely to PiS and its programme to lead Poland out “of ruins” and bring about the “Good Change”.

As corrupted elites, Duda’s campaign framed the governing elite of the then ruling PO as arrogant and detached from ordinary Poles’ lives. Touring around the whole country, meeting with these ordinary Poles, he aimed to distinguish himself from those liberal heirs of the Solidarity movement that sold out Poland’s interests to foreign actors. Duda stressed the historical legacies of Poles, by evoking heroism of older generations, drawing on direct family lines. This wass visualised in his campaign video that shows young scouts at the Warsaw Uprising Memorial, images of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw, or people waving Polish flags with the “Polska Walcząca – anchor” at his campaign inauguration – a symbol created in the resistance to Nazi German occupation and nowadays increasingly coopeted by radical right-wing actors in Poland. In his speeches as well as in his official campaign video, Duda stressed his legacy of the late PiS president Lech Kaczyński who lost his life in the 2010 Smolensk tragedy, but this remains the only allusion to recent history. The Polish nation and its heroism are evoked through its resistance and perseverance in the times of Nazi German occupation and the Second World War.

Aside the historical nostalgia, Duda ran as a candidate for all Poles, bringing hope and dignity to those from whom the ruling elites had unjustly withheld prosperity after the hardships of transition after state socialism. The pure people are defined through their belonging to Polish nation and its history, but in contrast to 2020, his 2015 campaign did not highlight the family as the core of the nation.

Populists in the seat: the 2020 campaign 

Duda linked his presidency completely to the PiS party and its government since 2015. This is probably best illustrated by his campaign slogan of 2020 “Obronimy Polski +” (“Let’s defend Poland +”), which is a clear reference to various social welfare programmes paid out by the Polish government since 2015, ranging from child benefit 500+ to a pension increase 300+ and other projects. Additionally, images in his campaign spot of Duda together with PiS prime minister Morawiecki shall illustrate the president’s cooperation skills. In his official appearances during the election campaign, Duda stresses his role in signing the respective laws, directly alluding that an oppositional president would refuse to sign laws passed by the Polish parliament or even threat to strip Poles from existing benefits.

The populist rhetoric has also visibly intensified over the last years and Duda’s definition of the pure Polish people has narrowed down. In the presidential debate held on the 17.06.2020 he cited the constitution defining marriage as a union between man and woman which builds the basis of the family he almost exclusively seems to target in his campaign. Tellingly, this was the only time during the debate that he cited the Constitution to underline his argument, while the Left’s challenger Robert Biedroń brought his own copy to the debate to wave it at the president accusing him of disrespecting the Constitution and the rule of law during his presidency. Duda’s narrow focus on families most recently found yet another peek with his move to sign a Family Charter (Karta Rodziny), reliant on a similar charter promoted by the radical-right conservative law think tank Ordo Iuris (involved in the establishment of so-called LGBT free zones in Poland ) which met with considerable backlash and many universities (among them Duda’s own alma mater the Jagiellonian University in Kraków) issuing supportive statements for their queer students and staff- Duda openly declared LGBT to be a “foreign ideology” and compared it with Soviet indoctrination.

Duda’s recursing to national heroism also increased, which even became a special point in his 2020 programme called “Historical truth and the image of Poland”. Among others it states: “[…] Poland needs a president who will continue to restore national pride. We are a nation of heroes. In our history we have demonstrated courage and steadfastness. Today, Poles can and should be beneficiaries of the attitude of their grandparents, for whom there was no matter more important than honour.” . In line with this, Duda continuously cites in his speeches the Polish national anthem “Poland has not yet perished as long as we still live.” It should not come as a surprise that the Polish national colours red and white become even more dominant and images of Duda commemorating Polish soldiers fallen during the Second World War become even more prominent in his campaign videos, underlined by heroic and epic music. In order to underscore his focus on Polish families, many children and teenagers feature his campaign. In the 2020 campaign they are particularly often dressed in traditional folk dresses (see here).

With PO’s candidate Rafał Trzaskowski rising in the polls , narratives of the arrogant PO neglecting ordinary Poles have made a reappearance in Duda’s framing of the corrupted elites, playing with soft Eurosceptic images and rekindling the old post-Solidarity division, between those who argue that Polish interests were sold out during transition and the years after under PO rule and those who supported a liberal reformist approach to the Polish transition (see Aronoff/Kubik, 2014: 229ff). (Interestingly this narrative is also used, but differently, by the independent candidate Szymon Hołownia, currently polling third, who stresses in his campaign that Poland needs a president independent of both camps and political elites PO and PiS to create a fair and just Poland.)

Good or sizable? Change in the presidential cabinet’s expenses

Every newly elected president appoints the new cabinet (Kancerlaria Prezydenta Rzeczpospolitej Polskiej, the KPRP) which manages the daily routine of the head of state. The current organisational structure has undergone substantial changes with a consequently expanding tendency. Arguably, such expansionary red tape goes against the narrative fostered by PiS and Duda in the 2015 elections of the “Good Change” narrative fostered by PiS and Duda in the 2015 elections, that is putting an end to excessive spending under the previous “elitist rule” of the Civic Platform’s (PO) president Bronislaw Komorowski. The particularly astonishing finding is that it is not transparent where and how much resources are devoted to some of KPRP activities, as for instance the two counselling bodies that Andrzej Duda has established in the memory of the late Lech Kaczyński, that is the Narodowa Rada Rozwoju (National Development Council Body, NRR) and Rada Przedsiębiorczości (Entrepreneurial Council, RdsP).

The competence of the cabinet  (KPRP) is specified in the , entirely defined by the newly appointed president. A brief comparison between the previous presidents, Bronisław Komorowski, and the incumbent Andrzej Duda’s, cabinet reveal an interesting bureaucratic trajectory. During Komorowski’s term, the cabinet had 14 offices, 4 secretaries of state and 6 full time advisors (9 supernumerary social advisors) all in accordance with the set up Chancellery status. Duda has expanded the overall office substantially. For the sake of simplicity, we have summed up the current organisational structure in the graph below with enumeration of the most critical individuals (non-repetitive) who are holding these posts as managers, advisors, and secretaries of state. Each of the management offices is led by an independent office director, adding up to 28 management divisions (offices and top management) in the chancellery.

KPRP under Komorowski:

KPRP under Duda

Summed up, the current cabinet has bureaucratically expanded about 30%, that is from 14 offices to 19, from 4 secretaries of state to 6, and from 6 full time advisors to 8. Moreover, the incumbent president has rekindled an initiative already proposed by the late Lech Kaczyński in 2009, the National Development Council Body (Rada Narodowego Rozwoju, in memory of the late president). The body, which has not published any results since 2010 and has only met twice since its establishment, comprises 102 experts subdivided into 6 thematic teams, serving as a presidential council. In a similar manner, President Duda has also set up another body of the same format, the Entrepreneurial Council back in May 2019, with yet too little contribution to assess its usability. The organisational structure of these bodies is shown below. Unfortunately, we have no access to the funding act or whether members are being recompensated in any manner for their participation (our query for it has not been answered at the time of writing).

Setting aside the difficulty to assess the contribution of those council bodies, the little oversight of the legal basis for the body to proceed is a worrying signal. The presidential sources are not transparent with regards to financing of these bodies, and their establishment has not been set up in the KPRP status, which on its own remains a weak legal act reliant majorly on the Art. 143 of the Constitution.

These observations are worrisome, as citizens are not aware of how these experts are being financed, and if expenses are covered by the public budgetbetween the expertise of the councillors, and arguably some of them are a surprising choice for presidential advisory board, as a gynaecology expert.

What we may state clearly is that the work of the Chancellery is fully funded from the public budget. The Ministry of Finance is responsible for budgetary planning, and the Chancellery has to comply with its annual calendar, the overarching deadline falling on every March. Both the planned expenses as well as the executed budget from the previous accounting period are legally required to be available to the public. Worryingly, however, at the time of writing, the presidential cabinet has not made the budgetary expenses available for the past year. That is to say, the administration has not complied with the budgetary requirements and we are unable to verify what were the past year’s budgetary expenses.

The latest document is the Chancellery ex-ante annual expense plan for the 2018/2019 budget. The comparison of these planning documents confirmed that since 2015 the planning has not changed a notch. Every year, the official per planned category budget of the Chancellery is 30 million PLN (€7.5 million) per designated unit. That may be a little surprising given that the budgetary excess has essentially increased as indicated by the total executed expenses. There is some substance to believe, that the financial oversight over the presidential dealings is not particularly exigent as the tables made available to the public are of generic, repetitive character, as shown on the table below.

There are more elaborate ways to complement these figures, either through the Supreme Audit Office (NIK) which is conducting the annual audit of the public budget, or through the Ministry of Finance. To our surprise, the NIK annual report for 2019 has not been issued yet, what indicates that the delay with financial oversight might be of graver nature. The only accessible statistic on how much the incumbent’s cabinet requires to provide for the bureaucratic net, is through the Ministry of Finance. Here, what has been substantiated by the recent press on the matter, we find evidence that Duda’s Chancellery is the most expensive since the transition. The annual operational budget has consecutively increased every year, reaching 200 million PLN in 2019 (€50 million) , that is almost a billion the past five years. We have again, little knowledge on expenses given the very generic nature of the expense categories. However, even brief calculation indicates that the president requires PLN 20 million (€5 million) per month to keep the vast offices he has set up  during his term. The further investigation confirmed that, the presidential palace is spending PLN170 million (€43 million) per annum on the administration offices alone (with additional PLN 30 million (€7.5 million) on residences, security, and promotional activities). To have a relative comparison, the annual cost of Bronisław Komorowski’s Chancellery was PLN 167million total (€43 million), that is roughly PLN 30 million (€ 7.5 million)  less than currently. Clearer oversight of the incumbent president’s spending would also be crucial to understand better how much of the budget is used for PR and campaigns such as #5latPAD (“Five Years President Andrzej Duda”) that seemingly mixes presidential PR with his current re-election campaign .

Conclusion: why it matters?

Duda will most likely continue to further Poland’s illiberal turn: after the judicial reforms which undermined the rule of law as one pillar of liberal democracy, he is now increasingly zooming in on minorities. Poland is already one of the most homophobic countries within the EU. The government is repeatedly promising to keep children safe from “LGBT ideology” and “propaganda”, what is reminding one of Russia’s anti- “gay propaganda” law.

In 2015, Duda’s win under the banner of the “Good Change” started the profound reform of the Polish state following the ideas of Jarosław Kaczyński, it was followed by PiS taking over the government in fall 2015 and defending its majority with the United Right in 2019. The president has gained the nickname by his critiques as “długopis” (pen), for signing most laws presented to him by the Sejm and even when he used his veto power in the judicial it fell short of expectations and has been the subject of continuous clashes with the EU over the rule of law in Poland.

These changes are distressing, because are difficult to reverse. The pressure on judiciary, and overtaken media loosen the traditional oversight over the rule of law. The brief examination of the budgetary dealings of the Chancellery showed that the promise of “Good Change” has been far from materialised. Not only has the incumbent president substantially increased the annual presidential spending (30 million PLN, i.e. €7.5million per annum more), reaching the astounding 880 PLN million in five years, but it has also departed from the legally binding foundation of the office. The set up NRR and RdsP have no officially accessible status, and citizens are in the fog concerning how these bodies are funded. Aside finance, these bodies have dubious results so far, with very few analytic reports (2010 NRR). The transparency concerning how the counselling bodies act is unreachable, the information of their financing is difficult to acquire. Essentially, the populist promise to sever with “corrupt elites” has merely turned the beneficiary wheel to the new incumbent’s own direction.

Albertazzi, Daniele and Sean Mueller, 2013. Populism and Liberal Democracy: Populists in Government in Austria, Italy, Poland and Switzerland. Government and Opposition 48, 343–371.

Aronoff, Myron J. and Jan Kubik, 2014. Anthropology and political science : a convergent approach /. Berghahn Books, New York.

Bermeo, Nancy, 2016. On Democratic Backsliding. Journal of Democracy 27, 5–19.

Bustikova, Lenka and Petra Guasti, 2017. The Illiberal Turn or Swerve in Central Europe? Politics and Governance 5, 166–176.

Kubik, Jan, 2012. Illiberal Challenge to Liberal Democracy: The Case of Poland. Taiwan Journal of Democracy 8, 79–89.

Markowski, Radoslaw, 2016. The Polish parliamentary election of 2015: a free and fair election that results in unfair political consequences. West European Politics 39, 1311–1322

Mudde, Cas and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, 2017. Populism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, New York.

edit. This post has been edited to clarify that it is the ballot that is secretly conducted, not the election itself (4th paragraph).

2 Responses to “The “Good Change”: Polish populist presidential campaign 2015 and now”

  • 1
    Aleksandra wrote on 23 June 2020:

    There is a mistake in the fourth paragraph because the election in itself is not secret – only the ballot is. Quoting directly the Polish Consitution in English: Article 127 “The President of the Republic shall be elected by the Nation, in universal, equal and direct elections, conducted by secret ballot.”

  • 2
    tjmsrol wrote on 23 June 2020:

    Thank you Aleksandra, that has been amended!

Leave a Reply