(U.S.) Diplomacy Meets (Polish) Party Politics
Andrzej Duda, the President of Poland, meets President Trump today (June 24). This is the first high-level White House visit as diplomacy reopens in the wake of the covid-19 pandemic. General restrictions on foreign visitors for both Poland and the U.S. remain in place. The visit takes place days before the Polish presidential elections on June 28 and amid discussions about an impending withdrawal of 9,500 U.S. troops from Germany. The official reason for the high-level visit is cooperation on defense and investment. But it is also a photo-op for the Polish president in the middle of a hard-fought election.
Opinion polls show President Duda (from the Law and Justice Party, known by its Polish initials as PiS) falling short of the fifty percent threshold, which would result in a second round of voting two weeks later. The president’s likely challenger is the mayor of Warsaw Rafał Trzaskowski, the candidate of the Civic Platform (known by its Polish initials, PO). The 48-year-old, who joined the contest only recently, is polling around 30 percent and has gained significant momentum. The new election law requires candidates to collect 100,000 signatures. Trzaskowski collected 1.6 million in five days. To beat Duda in the runoff round, he must gather support from the other left of center and liberal parties. About six percent of voters support the rightwing Euroskeptic Konfederacja party and will not automatically flock to either candidate in a second round.
The domestic debate has been highly polarized, with harsh rhetoric directed towards migrants and LGBT people. Foreign policy however has not played much of a role. All main parties prize strong ties with the United States and NATO. Trzaskowski, a former MEP and Europe minister, highlights the need for greater cooperation with and within the EU. Poland is set to be the largest net recipient in the EU’s next multiannual financial framework.
Poland’s relationship with the EU has wavered between skeptical and confrontational since PiS came to power and introduced media and sweeping judicial reforms that triggered Article 7 proceedings against Poland in 2017. Pressure from the European Commission and proceedings at the European Court of Justice have not made the government relent. Some international NGOs fear Duda’s visit to Washington aims to show that Poland, regardless of tensions with the EU, European courts, or other European governments, can always rely on the United States. The invitation to the White House and the prospect of increased U.S. troop levels cannot harm the incumbent’s campaign.
President Trump strongly endorsed Poland’s role in protecting Western civilization in his speech in Warsaw in the summer of 2017. But tying Poland tightly to this administration carries some risks. The Trump administration’s plans to cut sharply the U.S military presence in Germany have brought widespread criticism: Poland’s bid to benefit from this could be seen as opportunistic.
Similarly, Poland’s relationship with the U.S. risks being used for momentary political gains. The invitation and visit to the White House will be received in Poland as an endorsement of Duda’s re-election campaign. The U.S. government will be seen as taking sides in Polish domestic affairs — where much more than troop levels is at play.
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Photo: “Szczyt Inicjatywy Trójmorza Warszawa 2017 – Andrzej Duda i Donald Trump” by Krzysztof Sitkowski of the Chancellery of the President of the Republic of Poland under CC BY 4.0.