WARSAW, Poland (AFP) — Polish President Andrzej Duda is set for a tight run-off against liberal Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski next month after an inconclusive first round on Sunday in an election that could prove decisive for the country’s populist right-wing government.
In Sunday’s first round, Duda is expected to come first with 41.8 percent, according to an exit poll by Ipsos, meaning he would fall short of the majority required for an outright victory.
Trzaskowski, who has promised to heal rifts with the European Union, is set to come second with 30.4 percent but could receive endorsements from other opposition candidates ahead of round two on July 12.
Poles came out in large numbers in Sunday’s election despite concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, waiting in socially distanced queues and voting in their masks and visors.
Turnout was high, with almost 48 percent having voted by 5:00 p.m. compared to about 34 percent by the same time in the last presidential election in 2015, officials said.
Duda, 48, is backed by the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party and is seen as a key ally by US President Donald Trump.
Trump gave Duda his blessing earlier this week, inviting him to the White House as the first foreign leader to visit since the coronavirus pandemic began.
But the policies Duda and the PiS have pushed through — particularly highly controversial judicial reforms — have angered Brussels.
“This is a decisive time. A lot will really depend on this decision,” anti-communist icon Lech Walesa said as he cast his vote in the northern port of Gdansk wearing a transparent plastic visor over his face.
Walesa, who was elected Poland’s first democratic president after communism’s demise three decades ago, has been a trenchant critic of the current government.
The campaign has been dominated by concerns over an erosion of democratic rights and bread and butter economic issues, as Poland faces its first recession since the end of communism because of the pandemic fallout.
“I voted for Trzaskowski of course! Why? For democracy, the judiciary and respect for minorities,” said Joanna Ugniewska, 66, after casting her ballot at a polling station in a school in Warsaw city center.
But in Tarnow in southern Poland, a stronghold for the PiS, Andrzej Guzik said he would be voting for Duda because of his consistent leadership.
“Personally I only see Duda as president,” said Guzik, 52, an employee at the PGNIG state gas company.
Inside the polling stations, officials wore masks and transparent visors and many voters carried their own pens fearing contagion.
Signs on the ground indicated safe distances where voters could stand and hand sanitizer was provided.
Originally scheduled for May, the ballot was postponed due to the pandemic and a new hybrid system of postal and conventional voting was in place on Sunday in a bid to stop the election from causing a spike in infections.
Official figures show more than 33,000 cases and more than 1,400 deaths in this EU country of 38 million people, although the real number is believed to be much higher.
Poland’s government has implemented popular social welfare payments in recent years but has also endorsed polarizing legislation, especially judicial reforms.
While the PiS insists the changes are needed to weed out corruption, critics and the EU see them as denting the country’s democracy.
Victory for Duda would cement the party’s hold on power — at least until the next scheduled parliamentary elections in 2023.
But defeat could see its influence unravel and trigger early parliamentary elections.
During the campaign, Duda stoked controversy by echoing PiS attacks on gay rights and Western values.
He likened “LGBT ideology” to a new form of communism.
Trzaskowski however supports gay rights and says he is open to the idea of same-sex civil partnerships.
Campaigning with the slogan “Enough is Enough,” Trzaskowski has promised a different Poland.
But critics say his Civic Platform (PO) party is weak and ineffectual and that his record as mayor is mixed.