US, EU keep close eye as Poland votes in key election


Warsaw (AFP)

The future of Poland's right-wing government hangs in the balance as Poles prepare to vote on Sunday in a tight election that had to be delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Ahead of the vote, President Andrzej Duda this week visited Washington where he received words of encouragement from US President Donald Trump who said he was doing a "terrific job".

Trump sees Duda, backed by the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party, as an important European ally and Duda's visit to the White House was the first by a foreign leader since the pandemic began.

But Poland's EU partners have pilloried the government's reforms, particularly of the judicial system, saying they are eroding democracy just three decades after Poland shed communism.

The latest opinion polls indicate that Duda will easily come first on Sunday but fall short of the 50 percent majority required to win outright.

He would then face a run-off in the second round on July 12 against liberal rival Rafal Trzaskowski, the mayor of Warsaw, that is too close to call.

- Anti-gay rhetoric -

Duda has promised to defend the governing party's raft of popular social benefits, including a child allowance and extra pension payments -- a key factor behind the populists winning a second term in October's parliamentary election.

He has also echoed the party's attacks on LGBT+ rights and Western values, something critics argue is a pivot away from corruption allegations against senior PiS officials in their handling of the COVID-19 crisis.

Duda's anti-gay attacks have triggered a wave of protests.

Campaigning on the slogan "Enough is Enough" Duda's main rival, liberal Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, has vowed to defend the PiS's popular welfare payments.

But the former European affairs minister from the opposition centrist Civic Platform (PO), also promises to "fight hard" for a fair slice of the EU's 2021-27 budget, and to repair tattered ties with Brussels.

- 'Budapest model'? -

Since winning power in 2015, both Duda and the PiS have upended Polish politics by stoking tensions with the EU and wielding influence through state-owned companies and public broadcasters.

Some analysts view the election as a crucial juncture: a second five-year term for Duda would allow the PiS to make even more controversial changes while defeat could unravel the party's power.

"It's more than creeping authoritarianism and drifting away from liberal democracy," according to Warsaw University political scientist Anna Materska-Sosowska.

"It's also about... a drift to the Budapest model (of Hungary's Viktor Orban). That's the danger," she told AFP.

- 'One of us' -

Bread and butter issues are weighing heavily on voters' minds as the economic fallout of the pandemic is set to send Poland into its first recession since communism's demise.

But there is little doubt who will win in the sleepy, relatively poor, eastern Polish village of Godziszow, population 2,200.

Nearly 90 percent of voters there backed the PiS in October's election -- its best result nationwide.

"I'd give the PiS an 'A' for its social spending," Magda Ciupak, 33, an English teacher, local councillor and mother of two.

"As a conservative, it's also important to me that President Duda is a proud Catholic -- he's folksy, one of us," said Ciupak, who also runs a farm with her husband.

- Weak opposition -

Anna Konieczna, a small business owner in the wealthy western Polish city of Poznan, will choose differently.

Konieczna said it was "scandalous" that tax revenue generated by small business was "being spent lightly" by the government on benefits.

Condemning Duda's attacks on the LGBT+ community and his backing of contested PiS judicial reforms as "completely unacceptable", Konieczna said she backs Trzaskowski, but not wholeheartedly.

"His party (Civic Platform) is so weak, it has failed miserably to provide a viable alternative to the current government," she said.

Originally scheduled for May, the election was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has seen over 33,000 infections and more than 1,400 deaths in Poland, a country of 38 million people.

A new hybrid system of postal and conventional voting will be used to stem infections. Polling stations will be open between 7:00 am and 9:00 pm (0500-1900 GMT) with an exit poll expected as soon as voting ends.