In a sign of the divisive atmosphere ahead of this weekend’s presidential elections in Poland, the two candidates standing in the runoff vote yesterday held separate presidential “debates”, after they had failed to agree on a format and host for a joint event.

The two events took place simultaneously in different parts of the country.

In the central town of Końskie, President Andrzej Duda attended an event organised by state broadcaster TVP. Alongside him, a rostrum was left empty for his rival, opposition candidate Rafał Trzaskowski, who had refused to attend, claiming that the debate was a “set-up” in favour of the president, whose campaign has been supported by TVP.

Duda boycotted a debate proposed by private broadcaster TVN last week for similar reasons.

Opposition presidential candidate rejects “staged” debate on Polish state TV

Meanwhile, in the western town of Leszno, Trzaskowski also stood alongside an empty podium, at a debate Duda had refused to attend. The event saw Trzaskowski field questions from a wide range of media outlets, including supportive ones, such as Newsweek Polska and TVN, and those that back Duda, such as Telewizja Republika and Gazeta Polska, as well as TVP and state press agency PAP.

Below we have collected some of the most important and interesting answers given by the two candidates, who are virtually neck and neck in the polls heading into Sunday’s election.

Trzaskowski: we need to focus on rebuilding Poland’s position in the EU

Asked about foreign policy priorities, Trzaskowski says he wants to put the “focus on rebuilding Poland’s position in the European Union, because PiS [Law and Justice, the ruling party and an ally of Duda] has pushed it to the margins”. But he also declared that he would support the ruling party in negotiations with the bloc.

For his first presidential trip overseas, he would go to Brussels, while he would want to host the presidents of France and Germany in Poland first because “they are the most important partners in the EU.”

Trzaskowski explained that the key to being treated fairly in the international arena, including as an “important and meaningful partner” to the United States, is to be “strong in the EU and NATO”. He also played up his recent conversation with Barack Obama (at the other event, Duda made references to his recent visit to the White House).

Duda at the White House: ten views on the meeting with Trump

In a rare area of consensus between the government and opposition, Trzaskowski was unequivocal on the Nord Stream gas pipeline between Germany and Russia: “I am against Nord Stream,” he declared, because “the project violates the energy security of the EU.”

Duda: there is no shortage of money to realise social programmes

Duda was initially probed about financing for the social programmes that he and PiS have introduced, especially as the economic fallout of the pandemic approaches. He replied that Poland’s situation is “really quite good”, noting that the economy has grown on average by 4.3% annually over the past four years.

“The situation is under control,” continued Duda, “and there is no shortage of money to realise these [social] elements.”

He also cited Poland’s second lowest unemployment rate in the EU, after the Czech Republic, and argued that the government’s bailout packages have “been effective”.

The first programme that we implemented was lowering the state pension age, which had been raised by Civic Platform [PO, Trzaskowski’s party, which was in power from 2007-15]. Politicians from PO shouted at the time that we would destroy the budget, public finances and social security (ZUS) – that all turned out to be untrue.

Duda also mentioned the government’s tax break for people below the age of 26 years introduced last year as well as recent investments by Microsoft and Google, arguing that Poland has become an attractive place for young Poles to stay and work.

Microsoft announces $1 billion investment in Poland

Meanwhile during his debate, Trzaskowski agreed with Duda’s “diagnosis” of the need for the government’s flagship child benefit policy, “500 Plus”. He also repeated his earlier pledge on the campaign trail that he had changed his mind on the retirement age and would not allow it to be raised again.

Trzaskowski: we need to bet on renewable energy

Trzaskowski said that achieving climate neutrality is “one of the more important priorities”, underscoring the importance of the “fight against the climate catastrophe”.

Asked how Poland ought to reduce its reliance on coal, which currently accounts for almost 80% of the country’s energy mix, Trzaskowski replied that Poland needs to “bet on on renewable energy” and that the EU is “where the money for transformation is to flow from”.

As a flagship presidential programme, Trzaskowski has proposed that “every family should get money to replace their coal furnaces,” which are the key cause of smog in many of Poland’s largest cities.

Poland plans to begin shutting down Europe’s largest coal plant, documents reveal

Duda: I am absolutely not a supporter of any kind of obligatory vaccination

When probed on whether a coronavirus vaccine – once developed – should be obligatory, Duda replied that he has never inoculated against the common flu and therefore does not think that coronavirus vaccination should be obligatory either.

“I am absolutely not a supporter of any kind of obligatory vaccination,” said the president. But he added that the elderly should be given free and priority access to the vaccination.

Duda’s comments were initially interpreted by some as being a blanket statement opposing all forms of compulsory vaccination. Some commentators suggested they had been intended to attract libertarian and far-right voters.

However, in a late-night tweet, Duda responded to say that he had only been referring to a coronavirus vaccination, and not to those relating to other illnesses.

Trzaskowski: I am against adoption by same-sex couples

Asked about adoption of children by same-sex couples, Trzaskowski, who has been vocally supportive of LGBT rights as mayor of Warsaw, said: “I have always said that, when it comes to adoption, I am against.”

However, he reiterated that he supports the introduction of same-sex civil partnerships, adding an ironic reference to Duda’s recent legislative proposal for a constitutional amendment banning the adoption of children by same-sex couples, calling it a “bold move.”

Polish president proposes constitutional ban on same-sex adoption, calling it “enslavement”

Trzaskowski: I am absolutely ready to take part in such a march

As part of ongoing efforts to court voters who supported defeated nationalist candidate Krzysztof Bosak in the first round, Trzaskowski reiterated that he would “absolutely be ready to take part” in the controversial Independence Day march organised each year in Warsaw by far-right groups, so long as “it is not used for political ends”.

Nationalism or patriotism? Poland’s March of Independence 2019

Duda: elderly Western Europeans will be fleeing euthanasia to Poland

A question about people being unhooked from respirators in Belgium and Holland unexpectedly raised the issue of euthanasia. Duda said that as long as he is president, he will not allow for the procedure in Poland.

“We have been brought up with respect for the elderly. They are the treasure of our society,” said Duda, adding:

The issue of euthanasia is today a problem for many Western societies. There are already early signs that elderly people from those countries where euthanasia has been introduced, from Western Europe, will be coming here to peacefully live out their old age. To Poland (…), a country in which we respect the great value of life.

Trzaskowski: The vast majority of Poles voted for change. I offer this change

More generally, Trzaskowski continued to tie his campaign to a promise of change.

“I understand that you are fed up with lingering disputes. We have to look to the future. I am ready to cooperate. It is important that we learn to talk to each other again.”

Asked about the legacy of his rival, Trzaskowski pointed to Duda’s focus on small-town Poland, where the incumbent has made a point of visiting often-forgotten poorer and more traditional regions since the start of his presidency.

Duda’s Tour de Pologne: how the president is making small-town Poland his springboard to re-election

When probed about Duda and the government’s judicial overhaul, which has been condemned by the opposition as a violation of the rule of law and attempt to exert political control over the judiciary, Trzaskowski avoided making concrete declarations as to how he would deal with the issue.

The opposition candidate instead said that he would “sit down with specialists” in order to “unravel what has happened to Poland’s judiciary”. However, he also made clear that “there will be a tough stance…I will deliver due criticism of breaches of the constitution”.

Trzaskowski: no question of paying money to Jewish organisations

The opposition candidate was also asked a question about paying restitution to Jewish organisations by a representative of the local branch of public broadcaster TVP, which has sought to portray Trzaskowski as wanting Poland “to be robbed” of “200 billion zloty” by Jews seeking property restitution.

Trzaskowski said that the issue falls under the power of the parliament. He added, however, that “for now, there is no question of paying out this money. I would not sign such a bill.”

Main image credits: Michal Kanarkiewicz/Twitter

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