Incumbent Andrzej Duda won the most votes in the first round of the Polish presidential election on Sunday, an exit poll showed, setting the stage for a tight run-off vote that may shape Poland's relations with the European Union for years to come.
The re-election of government ally Mr Duda (48), who would now face liberal Warsaw mayor Rafal Trzaskowski in a run-off, is crucial if the ruling nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party is to to implement its conservative agenda, including reforms the EU says undermine the independence of the judiciary.
The president has the right to veto laws and Mr Trzaskowski, the candidate of the largest opposition party, the centrist Civic Platform (PO), has vowed to stop reforms which he says erode democracy.
“I want to thank everyone for voting,” Mr Duda told supporters after the exit poll was released.
Final voting results from the first round are expected later in the week.
Mr Duda got 41.8 per cent of the votes, the exit poll showed, while Mr Trzaskowski came second with 30.4 per cent. With none of the 11 candidates scoring more than 50 per cent in the first round, the run-off between the two frontrunners will take place on July 12th.
Mr Duda had long been seen as the clear favourite to win the election, but some recent polls have shown Mr Trzaskowski, also aged 48, winning in the second round.
Sunday’s election had originally been scheduled for May but was delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Poland has not been as badly hit by the virus as many countries in western Europe, and most people voted in person, although they were required to wear masks and observe other hygiene rules.
There was also a postal vote option, while thousands in some south-western regions with higher numbers of infection were also required to vote by mail.
As of Sunday, there were about 34,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the nation of 38 million people, with some 1,400 deaths.
The election took place amid deep cultural and political divisions.
Mr Duda ran a campaign focused on defending traditional values in the mostly Catholic nation while promising to raise living standards on a par with those in the West. He took a position against same-sex marriage and adoption and denounced the LGBT rights movement as a dangerous “ideology”.
That kind of rhetoric – along with laws that have given the ruling PiS much greater control over the justice system and the harnessing of public media as a tool to promote the government's image – have raised concerns among some that Poland is following Hungary in eroding democratic foundations.
Mr Trzaskowski has promised to retain the governing party’s popular spending programmes while vowing to restore constitutional norms.
Mr Duda’s once strong support, bolstered by adulatory coverage in public media, began to slip once coronavirus restrictions were lifted and other candidates could campaign.
Polls showed that he could difficult time in a run-off given that many opposition votes would be expected to consolidate against him.
The other candidates included Szymon Holownia, a TV personality and journalist who once studied to be a priest. He is unaffiliated with any party and has generated some enthusiasm among those tired of years of bickering between PiS and Civic Platform, the country's two main parties.
Also in the running were Robert Biedron, a left-wing politician who is Poland's first openly gay presidential contender; Wladyslaw Kosiniak-Kamysz, the head of an agrarian party; and Krzysztof Bosak, a member of the far-right Confederation party. – Reuters/PA