On Sunday Poland votes in the second round of the 2015 presidential elections, with current president Bronislaw Komorowski fighting to fend off the challenge of a younger Andrzej Duda. My account of the first round is at Poland presidential elections 2015.

On Sunday evening I’ll be at the excellent Topolski Bar in central London with #PolesinUK to discuss the election and opine briefly on the emerging results. I’ll be joined by Charles Grant (Centre for European Reform), Paweł Świdlicki (Open Europe) with Kasia Madera of BBC World News presiding. What could go wrong?

You need to be careful in saying anything positive or even polite about the Law and Justice tendency in Poland. Otherwise seemingly normal Poles from the Warsaw chattering classes (Warszawki) see them as something akin to the antichrist spliced with Attila the Hun on a bad night. I remember joining an agreeable dinner party in Warsaw where most of the evening was spent hooting in derision and loathing at the Kaczynski twins. Yet, oddly enough, when I had met the Kaczynski twins they seemed normal enough if a bit frumpy, with some sharp if truculent ideas about Poland, Europe and life in general.

Plus, of course, a few million Poles rather like them, a fact that grinds with the oh-so-sophisticated Warsaw elite. Here is my assessment of the life and work of former President Lech Kaczynski that I wrote after the Smolensk disaster:

Lech Kaczynski was a fastidious constitutionalist. He did not want Poland slipping back into the ruinous feuding of the 1930s. By 2000, the dozens of political parties that had contested early post-Communist elections had been reduced to some ten groupings. However, too many Polish voters flirted with overtly populist leaders of a “Red-Brown” inclination. Many were marginalised Poles from families displaced from Ukraine during World War II, left “rootless” in poor rural areas.

After the Kaczynskis’ PiS party (to their own surprise) became the largest party in the 2005 parliamentary elections, the twins hit upon a strategy that scandalised many middle-class Poles: They formed a coalition government with two populist parties, the Self-Defence and Polish Families parties. The ridiculous government wobbled along for a year or so, then collapsed.

In the 2007 elections, the centre-right Citizens Platform party swept to power. Insisting on “social justice” and strong state support for the less fortunate, PiS sucked in votes from traditional leftist voters. The populists and former Communists were crushed.

The result of the Kaczynskis’ machinations has been a spectacular success. Only four political groupings are now in parliament, and all of them are committed to modernising, pro-Western policies. Polish politics, decision-making, and institutions are notably more stable. Poland’s current economic success (while Europe as a whole struggles) is no accident.

This is a key point. The Law and Justice party and what it represents are not ‘right-wing’ let alone ‘extreme’ in any sense that makes sense in the UK or USA. They are rather sui generis etatist-patriots, people who want a strong (and honest) state structure as the basis for Poland rightfully (as they see it) re-establishing itself as a leading force in Europe and beyond. They drum up support from more conventionally defined Left and Right by playing on distrust of the ‘establishment’ and privilege. Hence the Duda platform has a curious but in Polish terms appealing combination of unwise if not ridiculous Left-populist ideas (No more privatised hospitals! Lower the pension age!) with some solid Right-populist appeal too (NATO bases in Poland to protect us against Russia! Simplify (some) taxes!).

The result of the Law and Justice party’s crafty manoeuvres in the past decade has indeed been to obliterate not only Poland’s previous rather ghastly populist parties (Polish Families and Self-Defence) but now too the former communist ‘Centre-Left’, whose dismal showing in the presidential first round (a pitiful 3% of the national vote) made the Miliband Labour result in the UK look like a triumph. This is a significant positive achievement, making Polish politics far more sensible and (as far as any Western country’s democratic politics now merit this word) ‘stable’.

By contrast the programme of President Komorowski has been nothing much more than dull and unengaging noises: ‘steady as She goes’, safe pair of hands, don’t rock the boat, we all love Europe, and so on. Given Poland’s Poland economic growth (including when the Kaczynski twins were president and prime minister respectively), this ought to be reasonable persuasive. But it’s not interesting. Komorowski has struggled to cope with Duda’s unexpected PR agility and youthful enthusiasm, and has not managed to use their televised debates to land a knockout blow despite pressing the idea that Duda is merely a Jaroslaw Kaczynski puppet. Mutterings from his own campaign talk of ‘disaster’. So as things stand Duda looks to have a solid chance to win.

The first round of these elections featured a powerful ‘anti-establishment’ vote for electoral reform in favour of a UK-style first-past-the-post election system rather than proportional representation ‘slates’ of candidates. The candidate advocating that seemingly eccentric view was Pawel Kukiz and he won an impressive 21% of the vote. Komorowski has responded boldly by setting in motion a national referendum on this subject in September, but even that may not be enough to woo Kukiz voters round to his camp (“hypocrite – he’s doing that only under pressure!“).

What if Duda wins? Might it help D Cameron is his manoeuvres re a UK EU referendum? Maybe. Duda is keen to see fewer Poles going abroad to seek their fortune, but will have little sympathy with any ‘reforms’ to the EU system that make it harder for Poles to move to and fro, including to the UK: memories of the Warsaw Pact barbed wire fences around Poland are too acute for new limitations on Poles’ movements to be tolerable. But he is no fan of Poland joining the Eurozone and may find plenty of scope for agreeing with London that Brussels needs to hand back (unspecified) powers to the national level.

Relations with Russia and Ukraine? Probably not much substantive change. Duda will want to proceed cautiously and not get Poland obviously ahead of the EU/NATO pack.

Anyway, this one is interesting as modern European elections go. A Duda success may in turn lead to Law and Justice regaining a leading position in the next Polish parliament in the autumn parliamentary elections, and perhaps a new lurch in favour of Polish politics redefining themselves down a messy ‘pro-Europe’ and ‘Eurosceptic’ line. That said, if the voting system changes to favour some sort of first past the post scheme, all sorts of strange new things could happen down the line.

See you in London on Sunday?

PS for a strident if not nutty view from Russia on the first round, check out John Helmer who for no obvious reason makes some irrelevant and impertinent remarks about me.