Poles voted on Sunday in a knife-edge presidential run-off between a populist incumbent closely allied with US President Donald Trump and a europhile liberal keen to mend fences with the EU.
The stakes are high for Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party government, which has relied on incumbent President Andrzej Duda to endorse judicial reforms that have set Warsaw on a collision course with the EU over democratic standards just three decades after communism’s demise.
Duda is struggling in a tight race with Warsaw mayor Rafal Trzaskowski of the opposition Civic Platform (PO) as final surveys showed the two running neck and neck.
Wojciech, a 59-year-old builder who declined to give his surname, said he chose Duda because his close ties to Trump meant Poland “can count on the US for defence”.
He also said he “agrees completely” with Duda’s vow to ban adoption for same-sex couples.
Warsaw pensioners who identified themselves only as Helena and Maria, both in their eighties, said they chose the pro-European Trzaskowski in the hope he could “get things back on the right track with the EU”.
“We remember too well how it was before (under communism), so for our grandchildren we want Poland to be stable in Europe,” Helena told AFP.
Turnout hit a record high 24.73 percent by noon, the state elections commission said, suggesting that the coronavirus pandemic would not keep voters away from the ballot box.
Long queues formed at polling stations as social distancing measures were used to stem infections.
Voters were also required to wear masks, use hand sanitiser and their own pens, plus to give priority to pensioners, pregnant women and voters with children.
The election had been due in May — at a time when Duda was riding high in the opinion polls — but was delayed because of the pandemic.
Duda’s support has slipped considerably since then, partly because of the virus fallout, which is pushing Poland into its first recession since communism fell.
An exit poll is expected when voting ends at 1900 GMT while official results are expected Monday morning.
Experts warn that Sunday’s result could be so close that legal challenges and protests may ensue.
In the first round on June 28, Duda came first with 43.5 percent and Trzaskowski second with 30.4 percent.
But Trzaskowski is hoping to sway voters who backed other candidates in round one.
Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, said he will have to mobilise very disparate parts of the electorate against Duda and the incumbent would therefore likely win, though by a narrow margin.
Duda promises to defend popular social welfare payments pushed through by the PiS government and led a polarising campaign, attacking LGBT rights and ruling out some Jewish wartime compensation claims.
Ahead of the vote, PiS Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro characterised it as “a clash of two visions of Poland, the white-red and rainbow-coloured,” a reference to the colours of Poland’s national flag and the symbol most widely used by the LGBT community.
The government has also lashed out at German-owned media outlets, accusing them of “bias” in the election after a tabloid owned by the Ringier Axel Springer Group published a story about Duda pardoning a paedophile.
Trzaskowski promises a very different Poland.
He has said he will roll back controversial reforms of the judiciary that have triggered tension with the rest of the European Union.
Trzaskowski supports allowing same-sex civil partnerships in Poland, although like Duda he opposes adoption by homosexual couples.
A Trzaskowski victory could begin to loosen the PiS’s grip on Polish politics.
A Duda win on the other hand would cement the party’s power.
“Will it be dominated and completely subservient to a certain political party, with all the consequences of power that is dictatorial in nature? Or will we manage to stop this?”