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Poland's Next President Could Ruffle Feathers In Moscow And Brussels

Andrzej Duda
Andrzej Duda

Poland's weekend presidential election has ushered in a socially conservative opposition nationalist who wants closer defense ties to the West but is skeptical of giving Brussels more clout over Warsaw's affairs.

Andrzej Duda, a 43-year-old from the opposition Law and Justice party, has campaigned for a permanent U.S. troop presence in Poland and delaying Poland’s entry into the European currency zone.

In broad terms, his presidency could mean greater tensions between Warsaw and Moscow if more foreign NATO troops are deployed in Poland in response to Russia’s increase air, naval, and troop activities in the region.

At the same time, if Duda’s political allies continue to gain power as a result of upcoming parliamentary elections, Poland could be moving away from the current government’s efforts to build ties with Germany and France -- instead, focusing on building relations with regional neighbors in the Baltics and Ukraine.

Incumbent President Bronislaw Komorowski conceded defeat in the March 24 presidential runoff election after exit polls showed him winning 47 percent of the vote compared to 53 percent for Duda. The Central Election Commission said on May 25 that Duda won with 51.55 percent of the vote.

In Poland, the prime minister leads the government while the presidency is a largely ceremonial office.

But the president does serve as commander-in-chief of Poland's armed forces. He also has influence over foreign policy and the power to veto legislation, as well as control over Poland's central bank.

That gives Duda more say in the country's ties with NATO and how soon Poland should carry out its obligation to abandon its zloty currency in order to adopt the euro.

During his election campaign, amid deep concerns about Russia's military muscle flexing in neighboring Ukraine, Duda said Warsaw should strengthen ties with its Western allies by permanently stationing NATO troops on Polish soil.

Duda said: "The best course of action for Poland would be to have U.S. troops stationed on its territory. It's the only way to guarantee the country's security."

In a congratulatory telegram, the Kremlin says Putin responded to Duda's victory by expressing "certainty that building a constructive relationship between Russia and Poland, based on the principles of genuine good neighborhood and respect for each others' interests, would foster stronger security and stability."

Poland is wary of Russia’s increased military activity and deeply skeptical about Putin’s intentions toward Poland and the Baltics as a result of a long history of conflicts over control of their borderlands.

Poland was occupied by both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union during World War II and remained under Soviet domination until 1989.

EU Skeptic

In July 2014, as a result of Russia’s support for separatists in Ukraine, Poland cancelled a full year of bilateral cultural events planned with Russia.

Poland also has formally complained to NATO about Russia’s increased military air and naval activities.

On the euro currency, Duda said Poland should stay out of the eurozone "so long as the standard of living of Poles remains below that of Germans or the Dutch."

Poland does not currently use the euro as its currency, but under the terms of its accession treaty with the European Union it is required to eventually adopt the euro.

Duda has not specified how he might use the presidential veto.

But political analysts say he could use it to promote a more skeptical approach to the EU and to block socially liberal initiatives like a proposed law that would support in vitro fertilization.

On March 25, Duda announced that he was giving up his membership in the right-wing Law and Justice party as part of his vow to be "the president of all Poles."

However, he has made no secret that his views are closely tied to the platform of the Law and Justice party and to the views of the Roman Catholic Church.

For example, he has argued that the conservative but socially centrist Civic Platform has been too liberal on issues like gay rights and women's rights.

Like the governing Civic Platform, Duda and the Law and Justice party support Poland’s membership in the EU and NATO.

Both parties agree on the economic principles of privatization and free-market reforms.

They also strictly oppose Putin's annexation of Crimea, the Kremlin's support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, and Russia's increased troop activity near its borders in the Baltic region.

'Spiritual Heir'

Duda and his former party also are seen as more likely to forge regional ties with countries like Lithuania and Ukraine, while Civic Platform has been building Warsaw's ties with Germany and sought a larger role in EU affairs.

Duda calls himself the "spiritual heir" to the late President Lech Kaczynski, who died in a 2010 plane crash in Russia.

Polish President Lech Kaczynski was killed in a plane crash in 2010.
Polish President Lech Kaczynski was killed in a plane crash in 2010.

But Duda only became well-known after he was named as the Law and Justice presidential candidate by Lech's controversial twin brother, Jaroslaw Kaczynski -- a former prime minister who is now the Law and Justice chairman.

Born in 1972 in the southern city of Krakow, Duda was a Boy Scout and a Catholic choir boy in his youth before he earned a law degree from Krakow's Jagiellonian University, the oldest university in Poland.

When the Law and Justice party came into power in 2005, Duda was named as deputy justice minister.

He resigned from that post in 2008 in order to become an aide to President Lech Kaczynski.

In 2011, Duda was elected as a member of Poland's parliament.

He was elected as a Polish deputy to the European Parliament in 2014.

Duda's March 24 victory is the first major election victory for the opposition Law and Justice party against a Civic Platform candidate in nearly a decade.

As a possible bellwether of upcoming parliamentary elections, the presidential vote has raised concerns within the governing Civic Platform, which has been in power for eight years and is allied with the outgoing Komorowski.

Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna told Polish public broadcaster TVP Info that the March 24 election results should serve as a warning to the Civic Platform and Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz’s government about the parliamentary elections in November.

Schetyna said the presidential vote shows that the Civic Platform must ask itself "difficult questions ahead of the next elections," which will determine who serves in the more powerful post as Poland's next prime minister.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa, New York Times, TVP Info, Interfax, and TVN24

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