Poland’s nationalist incumbent Andrzej Duda won the first round of a presidential election on Sunday (28 June) but will have to face the centrist mayor of Warsaw in a run-off on July 12, in a race that could transform the nation’s ties with the European Union.
Duda, 48, is backed by the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party, and is expected to come out on top in the first-round vote with 41.8%, according to an exit poll by Ipsos.
Rafal Trzaskowski, who has promised to heal rifts with the European Union, is set to come second with 30.4%, but could receive endorsements from other opposition candidates ahead of the July 12 second round of voting.
“I will be the candidate of change!” Trzaskowski said at an election night party in a redeveloped former power station in Warsaw.
Trzaskowski, who is also 48 and is from the Civic Platform (PO) party, appealed to voters “who want an open Poland, not a Poland always looking for enemies”.
The election was scheduled to be held in May but had to be postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Voters came out in large numbers despite contagion fears, waiting in socially distanced queues outside polling stations and casting ballots in their masks and visors.
Turnout was high compared to previous votes at 62.9%, the exit poll said.
Much at stake for ruling PiS party
Duda’s re-election is crucial if the ruling PiS party is to implement further its socially conservative agenda, including judiciary reforms the EU says contravene democratic standards.
PiS has cast Duda as the guardian of its generous welfare programmes, which have helped it win national elections in 2015 and 2019, and of its pledge to protect traditional family values in predominantly Catholic Poland.
A devout believer himself, Duda had campaigned on a promise to ban classes about gay rights in schools, saying LGBT “ideology” was worse than communist doctrine.
“The campaign goes on because Poland needs it,” Duda told jubilant supporters in the central town of Lowicz. “Some people have a complex and think we are not Europeans. We are, and have been… since we converted to Christianity.”
Duda is seen as a key ally by Donald Trump and received the US president’s blessing when he visited the White House earlier this week, the first foreign leader to do so since the pandemic began.
But he has raised hackles in Brussels by endorsing a controversial reform of the judiciary that critics say is eroding democracy – three decades on from the end of communist rule in Poland.
Civc Platform comeback?
Experts were divided on who could win the election next month.
The Civic Platform, a party once led by former EU Council president Donald Tusk, replaced its flagging candidate with Trzaskowski after the election was postponed amid the coronavirus pandemic by seven weeks.
A former EU emissary for his party, Trzaskowski has promised to work towards repairing relations with Poland’s European allies, and to oppose any government efforts to tighten already restrictive abortion rules.
The election is being closed watched in Brussels.
Under PiS, Poland became the only EU state to refuse to commit to the bloc’s 2050 climate goal in December 2019, which critics said could undermine its ambition to take on the leading role in the global fight with climate change.
If he wins the election in July, Trzaskowski will have limited scope to direct policy, but will be able to veto legislation proposed by the government.
This could give him a chance to block efforts by the government of prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki to deepen court reforms, which the EU has said politicise the judiciary, or refuse appointments of new judges.
“We will soon decide whether we will have a strong president who will hold the government to account or a president who doesn’t respect his own signature,” Trzaskowski said during an election-night rally in Warsaw.
Observers say a win by Trzaskowski could undermine the fragile majority PiS has in parliament, and force Morawiecki to govern as a minority cabinet, or even face an early national election.
“The second round is expected to be closer than it has been in a long time,” said Agnieszka Kwiatkowska, a sociologist at the SWPS university.
“Duda will have the support of the entire government, with its ability to make election promises and offer financial incentives to voters … The question is will he be able to use it.”
Poland’s government has implemented popular social welfare payments in recent years, which Trzaskowski has promised to retain if he wins.
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 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 party is weak and ineffectual and that his record as mayor is mixed.