Poland faces momentous choice in tight presidential runoff

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Voters in Poland on Sunday will decide a tight runoff election between populist incumbent President Andrzej Duda and his liberal pro-European Union challenger, Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski.

Recent opinion polls show a race so close that it could hinge on a narrow margin of voters, which added urgency to the final days of campaigning in the central EU nation of 38 million people.

If Duda is reelected, he and the right-wing Law and Justice party that backs him will maintain a hold on almost all key instruments of power in the country, possibly until the next parliamentary election, which is scheduled for 2023.

The party’s welfare policies have helped reduce income inequality, creating reservoirs of admiration, especially in rural areas where the party’s attachment to Roman Catholic traditions also goes far.

But Law and Justice has exacerbated divisions in society with rhetoric marginalizing liberals, the LGBT community and other minority groups. It has also drawn criticism from some EU leaders for laws increase political influence over Poland’s justice system.

A victory for Trzaskowski, who belongs to the main opposition party, Civic Platform, would give him veto power over the laws passed by the ruling party. Also, since the Polish president represents the country abroad, Trzaskowski would bring in a more pro-European side of Poland to European forums.

“If Trzaskowski wins, it will be a clear sign that the society has had enough and wants a kind of politics where compromise is a value,” said Wojciech Przybylski, editor in chief of Visegrad Insight, a policy journal focused on Central Europe.

Duda and Trzaskowski, both 48, eliminated nine other candidates in the first round on June 28. Duda got 43.5% support and Trzaskowski got 30.5% but is expected to pick up many of the votes that went to other candidates in the first round. There are nearly 30 million eligible voters and the new president will serve a five-year term.

Duda has the support of the powerful ruling party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

He has traveled across Poland visiting open-air markets and vowing to protect the government’s signature spending policies. He was especially well received in farming regions and small towns, where government-paid bonuses have helped alleviate poverty and have given families with children more money to spend.

“This election will decide Poland’s development in the future, whether it will continue on the path to development,” Duda said at a rally in Starachowice, an industrial town of 50,000 in central Poland.

Duda has claimed that Trzaskowski would cut the popular welfare spending programs — but Trzaskowski has vowed to preserve them, acknowledging the “mistake” his pro-business party made in not introducing such help earlier.

Ryszard Sadowski, a 72-year-old who turned out to cheer Duda, praised him as a “reliable” man who kept his promises to help improve the lives of regular people. The retired biology and gym teacher said he benefited from a new yearly cash bonus for senior citizens and others in his family have received payments for children.

“From the moment when the money started coming to the families, suddenly everyone is happy,” Sadowski said.

Trzaskowski, a former European Parliament lawmaker, has vowed to heal Poland’s social divide and respect democratic rules. His support is strongest in larger cities and among more highly educated people, according to data from the first round.

“The stakes in this election are extremely high,” he told reporters this week.

Law and Justice will either “continue to destroy independent institutions, further try to politicize courts, destroy local governments and threaten the freedom of the media, or we will have a democratic state where the president restores the balance,” he said. “It’s now or never.”

At a Trzaskowski rally in Gniezno, Wlodzimierz Mokracki, a 74-year-old who still teaches at technical schools, believes Poland’s 30-year-old democracy is at stake in this vote.

If Trzaskowski wins, Mokracki said, “we will go back to a democratic state. I will not be afraid to say what I think, because today they are taking the first small steps toward intimidating us.”

A text message Saturday to all mobile phones from a government public safety office said the elderly, the disabled and pregnant women need not wait in line to vote Sunday, drawing angry comments on Twitter. Users said it violated the mandatory ban on campaigning Saturday and was an abuse of the office that warns against dangerous weather and other safety threats.

The election was originally scheduled for May, but was put off amid political wrangling over concerns for public health during the coronavirus pandemic. To date, Poland has 37,000 confirmed infections and almost 1,600 virus-related deaths.

Sunday’s vote, just like the first round, will be held under strict sanitary conditions.

Voters must wear masks and gloves, maintain a safe distance and use hand sanitizer. They can use their own pens to mark ballots. Election officials must wear masks and sit apart from each other, and ballot boxes will be regularly disinfected in the well-ventilated polling stations.

Morawiecki, the prime minister, said the virus is “retreating” and urged everyone to vote, which was seen as encouraging Duda’s older supporters, some of whom did not vote in June’s first round out of health concerns.

“The political situation is tense, the outcome may be a very close call, and that has pushed the coronavirus theme into the background,” Jaroslaw Flis, a political scientist with the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, was quoted as saying by the Gazeta Prawna newspaper.

Concerns were raised in the first round that some voters outside the country were disenfranchised because many mail-in ballots reached voters too late.

Trzaskowski won 48.1% of votes cast from abroad, while Duda got 20.9%, according to official results.

It remained to be seen if those voting procedures, carried out by Poland’s government-controlled diplomatic missions abroad, will improve for the presidential runoff.

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