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'It's hard to be optimistic': Many Poles in Ireland uneasy at re-election of populist president

Andrzej Duda saw off a liberal challenger in a closely fought contest.

President of Poland, Andrzej Duda, before he cast his vote in the election.
President of Poland, Andrzej Duda, before he cast his vote in the election.
Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

FOR MANY POLISH citizens living in Ireland, the narrow re-election of Andrzej Duda yesterday as president was a disappointment. Many are now unsure what happens next. 

To many Poles who spoke to TheJournal.ie, the result confirmed that the nationalist, conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) will remain in the ascendancy for years to come. 

Interest in the poll was unprecedented. Figures suggest that 29,000 Poles living in Ireland registered to vote in the second round of the presidential contest – the highest ever of a population of around 122,000. 

But of the 24,000 people who cast a ballot in the election, many woke up yesterday disappointed. Figures show that 77% of Poles in Ireland backed the liberal challenger Rafał Trzaskowski, the mayor of Warsaw. 

Overall, the result was much tighter than was expected only a few months ago. Duda won 51.2% of the vote, while Trzaskowski ultimately ended up on only 48.8%. 

Critics and human rights groups have already expressed concerns that Duda’s victory will boost illiberal tendencies not only in Poland but within the European Union. 

“Before this election, it was never on my mind to go back to Poland. This election certainly hasn’t changed that,” says Joanna Siewierska, a student from Dublin. 

She’s lived in Ireland 16 years and voted in the election. “I get worried looking at what’s going on in Poland,” she says.  ”There is a difference in opinion about issues that are important to me. And what can I do about it?”

“It’s difficult to be optimistic after a result like this.”

Poland’s populist politicians have in the past two years frequently used rhetoric discriminating against LGBT people and other minorities, and the party has turned public television into a propaganda tool used during the campaign to praise Duda and attack his opponents. 

The government has also been accused of undermining the rule of law by drastically reforming the judiciary and appointing pro-PiS judges. 

Siewierska backed Trzaskowski, but called him the “lesser of two evils”. 

“I’d see a lot of apathy towards politics in Poland,” she says. And while there are signs of grassroots, creative activism – especially among minority rights groups, Siewierska remains pessimistic. 

“It’s going to take more than creativity to change things,” she says. 

Dominik Michalik, a student in Dublin, says he’s worried about Polish democracy. He voted in the election and says Duda ran a “fear” campaign. 

“It was stressful. I’m still a Polish citizen and I’d like to see my country going in a different direction,” says Michalik, who left Poland nearly 12 years ago. “Maybe I’ll go back to Poland at some time in the future. But looking at Duda and the current government, many people won’t go back.”

“When you live in Ireland, you see a completely different world.”

rafal-trzaskowskis-election-night-in-warsaw-poland-12-jul-2020 Rafal Trzaskowski, from the Civic Platform party, narrowly lost out in the contest. He was backed by a majority of Polish people in Ireland. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Duda’s campaign focused on defending traditional ‘family values’ in the predominantly Catholic nation of 38 million people. Duda and the party, both in power since 2015, also solidified support among older Poles by lowering the retirement age and introducing a yearly cash bonus called a “13th pension”.

Łukasz Sławiński has lived in Limerick since 2005. He said that many Poles “feel disappointment” about the result. Fiercely anti-PiS, he said that Duda and his party are undermining freedom in Poland. 

“We left Poland, thinking that now the country is on a good way, part of the European family,” he said. “We underestimated populists, strong economical disproportionality and a very conservative society. That’s why we chose Trzaskowski. He is for us the last stand of protection of democratic values.”

Weronika Laszczynska, a student from Drogheda, said that she was “quite disappointed”. It was the second time she’d ever voted in a Polish election and said that there were a lot of “frustrations” with the voting process. 

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“A lot of us were left questioning the integrity of the process,” she added. 

“I believed Trzaskowski was a much more suitable candidate. He would have led the country in a more modern way,” she added. 

No one could explain fully why Poles in Ireland backed Trzaskowski against Duda. Some suggested that a younger population, used to marriage equality and abortion rights gaining widespread mainstream support, would be much less likely to support the populist Duda. 

Others say it’s not that simple. Polish diaspora across Europe, not just in Ireland, failed to back Duda in huge numbers. Barnaba Dorda, the Chairperson of Forum Polonia, a group that represents the Polish community, said that one major quirk was how undivided Poles in Ireland were. 

But he says the community in Ireland have long been used to looking at Polish politics “from a different angle”.

“When you look back on elections for last 10 years, Poles in Ireland were voting anti-establishment,” he says. Many would have even voted PiS before when the party was out of power. 

“They are passionate about the politics, even if it’s not directly affecting them. They could be galvanised,” says Dorda.

Voytek Bialek, from the TogetherRazem Centre in Cork, which supports Polish migrants, says divisions have become a normal part of the country’s politics in recent years. 

“If you go back to the previous presidential election five years ago, it was pretty much the same. Poland was divided.”

Not many people Ireland, despite some initial calls for unity from the re-elected president, seem to think that discord will be easily soothed. 

With reporting from Press Association

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