Polish President Andrzej Duda, the frontrunner in an election Sunday that was delayed several weeks because of the coronavirus pandemic, is a loyal ally of the EU member’s ruling conservatives.
Though Polish presidents wield limited power, a second five-year term for the 48-year-old lawyer would likely cement the governing right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party’s chances of moving ahead with its agenda.
Duda, who is predicted to be forced into a second-round run-off, has rarely said no to powerful PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski and is known for waving through government policies like generous social benefits and controversial judicial changes.
“He’s a party man, carrying out its orders,” Warsaw-based political analyst Stanislaw Mocek said.
The one time Duda broke from the party came in 2017, when he vetoed two judicial reforms he believed gave too much power to the attorney general, who is also the justice minister — and curtailed his own.
The surprise veto left the PiS stunned and earned Duda applause from the liberal opposition and the European Union, which has repeatedly expressed concern over the judicial changes.
– Spiritual heir –
Born in 1972 to a family of professors in the southern city of Krakow, Duda was a choir boy and Boy Scout before earning a law degree from the Jagiellonian University in 1996.
When PiS first came to power in 2005, Duda was named deputy justice minister, a job he gave up in 2008 to become an aide to then president Lech Kaczynski, Jaroslaw’s twin.
A devout Catholic, Duda was close to Lech — who in 2010 died when his presidential jet crashed in Smolensk, Russia — and often calls himself his “spiritual heir”.
Duda also has the backing of the present-day incarnation of the Solidarity trade union that brought a peaceful end to communism at home in 1989.
Duda was elected to the Polish parliament in 2011, then to the European Parliament in 2014. But he only became well-known after Kaczynski crowned him presidential candidate.
Duda went on to win the presidential election in May 2015, after promising voters social benefits galore in fiery campaign speeches always featuring his ready smile.
– Judicial changes –
Like Poland’s powerful Catholic Church, Duda opposes in-vitro fertilisation and the 2011 Istanbul Convention, the world’s first binding legal instrument to prevent and combat violence against women, which Poland ratified in 2015.
He is also in favour of tightening the anti-abortion law — already among Europe’s most restrictive — and recently likened “LGBT ideology” to communism, drawing criticism at home and abroad.
Duda had pledged to lower the retirement age from 67 to 65, a campaign promise he kept. It is also on his watch that the PiS began giving parents a monthly stipend of 500 zloty (110 euro, $130) for every child.
In terms of foreign policy, Duda has worked on strengthening ties with NATO. Since he became head of state, the Western defence alliance and the United States have deployed their troops in the region in response to Russia’s activity in neighbouring Ukraine.
Just four days before the election, Duda visited US President Donald Trump, who was lavish with his praise of his Polish “friend’ — the first foreign leader invited to the White House since the COVID-19 pandemic.
Without going so far as to call himself a eurosceptic, Duda has in the past described the European Union as an “imaginary community from which we don’t gain much.”
Duda’s critics fault him for his role in bringing to heel the Constitutional Court and other judicial institutions.
In 2017, the EU launched unprecedented proceedings against Poland over “systemic threats” posed by the reforms to the rule of law that could see its EU voting rights suspended.
An avid skier, Duda is married to German language teacher Agata. They have an adult daughter.