He’s better known as the host of “Poland’s Got Talent!” but Szymon Hołownia is aiming to win an even more meaningful competition — the race for the presidency.
Hołownia, 44, is a complete newcomer to politics — as well as hosting the popular TV show, he’s the author of books about religion and a humanitarian activist — but, according to the latest polls, he’s on course to finish third in this weekend’s election.
If that happens, he won’t make it through to the second round, but the support he is getting as an independent has been a major disruption for the two main political parties.
Hołownia says he decided to run for the country’s highest office because he couldn’t stand the direction of political life in Poland, and the only way to change that was to get involved.
“First, there was one word: enough. And then there was another thing: Let’s get to work, we need to change it,” he told POLITICO in an interview, stressing that he couldn’t stomach the never-ending fight between the two biggest parties: the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) and the centrist Civic Platform (PO).
“I don’t want it to end up with apathy or an anti-systemic rebellion, but with a constructive revolution” — Szymon Hołownia, Polish presidential election candidate
“Polish political powers have lost their effectiveness. They made citizens lose their self-agency. [The citizens] got trapped by the party system and now they suffer from Stockholm syndrome: they don’t accept this system, they see its disadvantages, they see its deficiencies, but still they vote and support it because they don’t see another solution,” he said.
So Hołownia got to work and built a campaign thanks to a grassroots online movement of volunteers — something he’s seeing in other countries.
“Not only in Europe but also in the world, we’ve been observing the trend of benefiting from political innovation,” he said, mentioning successful campaigns of candidates coming from outside the political system: the presidents of Ukraine and Slovakia, Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Zuzana Čaputová, as well as U.S. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“This remodeling is going on across the world,” he said. “I don’t want it to end up with apathy or an anti-systemic rebellion, but with a constructive revolution.”
Damaged by delay
The Polish presidential election was supposed to be held on May 10 but was postponed because of the coronavirus — and if that hadn’t happened, Hołownia could have been in an even better position: At the time, some polls showed him getting to the second round of the vote, and maybe even beating the incumbent, Andrzej Duda of PiS.
However, the vote was postponed to June 28 and PO changed their candidate from Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska, who was tanking in the polls, to Rafał Trzaskowski, whose campaign has taken many votes away from Hołownia.
Yet the coronavirus crisis and subsequent lockdown have provided Hołownia’s campaign with opportunities. With no possibility of organizing rallies, Hołownia successfully moved his campaign online — recording daily Facebook live chats, uploading several videos a day and interacting with Instagram users. For a large part of the campaign, he was the unquestionable leader when it came to reaching his supporters on social media.
This gave him a crowd of followers and helped raise 7 million złoty (€1.6 million) — the highest amount ever raised by an individual during a Polish election campaign.
“Thousands of people who share my hope and the willingness to work, who voted for different [political] options in previous elections, they come and say, ‘Let’s do this,’” he said. “We woke up the hope that I hadn’t seen in Poland.”
Hołownia is not the first to try to shake up Poland’s two-party system — in the last election, for example, the singer Paweł Kukiz got almost 21 percent of votes as an independent with no electoral program.
Rafał Trzaskowski’s campaign has taken votes away from Hołownia| Jacek Szydlowski/EPA
But Hołownia has built his support around his manifesto, which says his presidency would focus on security, social inclusion and restoring the country’s rule of law. He puts a lot of emphasis on the green transformation, saying he would use a “green veto” as president to reject laws that don’t comply with the goal of climate-neutrality.
But some of his pledges bring him more criticism than praise.
As well as being a celebrity, Hołownia tried twice to become a priest and is a devout catholic. During his campaign, he said he wouldn’t immediately approve any bills to legalize abortion or gay marriage, and debated the legality of the morning-after pill, moves criticized by the left-wing opposition.
“I thought we are running in the election for a president, and not for a bishop,” Robert Biedroń, the presidential candidate of liberal Lewica party, said of Hołownia’s views.
The presidential election … “is a much bigger question on how someone sees politics in the next generation, not only in the next term.”
Hołownia said it wouldn’t be right if he changed his mind on issues just for the sake of the campaign and as president, he would represent “various Poles,” not only those who have the same opinions as him.
“We have many other problems, apart from abortion, apart from in vitro, sexual education. We really have many other things to do,” he said. The presidential election, he added, “is a much bigger question on how someone sees politics in the next generation, not only in the next term.”