Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 15 July 2020

Fame and political fortune: Polish TV showman has outside shot at presidency

Szymon Holownia could follow in the footsteps of other celebrity heads of state if he is elected as Poland's next president on Sunday

Polish journalist and Presidential candidate Szymon Holownia delivers a speech for locals and supporters in Radom. Getty
Polish journalist and Presidential candidate Szymon Holownia delivers a speech for locals and supporters in Radom. Getty

Just before coronavirus hit, Poland was on the path to replicating its neighbour Ukraine – and indeed many other countries – by electing a television celebrity as head of state.

Szymon Holownia may not be a household name beyond Eastern Europe but neither was Ukraine’s Volodymir Zelensky, who was an actor portraying a president on TV who then became president in reality.

The reality show career appears to be good grounding for the political stage. Without The Apprentice programme it's questionable whether Donald Trump, despite being a fabulous self-publicist, would have garnered the face and name recognition to lead the world’s most powerful country.

As former presenter of Poland’s Got Talent, Mr Holownia is blessed with the celebrity that the small screen brings to those who wish to enter politics while avoiding the long struggle for media attention craved by “professional” politicians.

If he becomes the Polish president he will add to the list of electorates who have embraced celebrities. Ronald Reagan is arguably the most successful by using the heroic profile garnered from 20-odd Hollywood films to become president of the United States from 1981 to 1989. Bodybuilder and action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger followed in Reagan’s footsteps as California governor. But it’s not only stars of the screen that do well. The great cricketing all-rounder Imran Khan became Pakistan’s president in 2018 and George Weah, who played football for Chelsea, Manchester City and Paris St Germain, still leads Liberia.

Last December Mr Holownia, 44, published a humanitarian manifesto that focused on environmental protection, health care and national security. It was an eye-catching mixture of left and right-wing views that appealed to Poland’s electorate, attached to two-party politics since communism ended in 1989.

Women walk by a campaign poster of presidential candidate Rafal Trzaskowski. Getty Images
Women walk by a campaign poster of presidential candidate Rafal Trzaskowski. Getty Images

By early spring the TV host was surging in the polls and heading towards the second round of the vote and potentially beating the serving President, Andrezj Duda, of the hard-line, right-wing Law and Justice party.

But the pandemic hit and the presidential election was delayed from May 10 to this Sunday, June 28.

Failing in the polls the main opposition party, the centrist Civic Platform immediately dumped their candidate and put in the liberal, pro-European Rafal Trzaskowski.

Despite their new candidate sweeping up much of his liberal votes, Mr Holownia remains an outside chance of getting into the second round vote-off. The Polish president is mainly a ceremonial position but with the key power to veto laws.

Supporters of Szymon Holownia take part in a campaign rally. Getty Images
Supporters of Szymon Holownia take part in a campaign rally. Getty Images

A strong Roman Catholic, humanitarian activist and environmentalist, Mr Holownia stood because of the authoritarian lurch Poland has made under the Law and Justice party. But he also believes that new, grass-roots movements such as Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche! party in France and Italy’s Five Star Movement in Italy can break away from old, entrenched parties.

“Not only in Europe but also in the world, we’ve been observing the trend of benefiting from political innovation,” he told the Politico website. “This remodelling is going on across the world. I don’t want it to end up with apathy or an anti-systemic rebellion, but with a constructive revolution.”

When lockdown was imposed Mr Holownia used his media clout and took his campaign online with Facebook live chats and Instagram interaction. The social media following has seen him raise $1.5 million, the highest by anyone in Poland. “We woke up the hope that I hadn't seen in Poland,” he said.

There’s an outside chance that “hope”, a social media following and of course a television show will propel another celebrity into political power.

Mr Holownia may well lose on Sunday but it feels as though the presidential election might only be the opening episode of a new drama in Poland’s history.

Updated: June 26, 2020 05:03 PM

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