Polish populists tested as country votes


Warsaw (AFP)

The future of Poland's populist right-wing government hung in the balance Sunday as Poles voted in round one of a tight presidential race that was delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The frontrunner is incumbent Andrzej Duda, 48, who is seen as a key European ally by US President Donald Trump but whose policies have raised hackles in the European Union.

"This is a decisive time. A lot will really depend on this decision," anti-communist icon Lech Walesa said as he cast his vote in the northern port of Gdansk.

Walesa, who was elected Poland's first democratic president after communism's demise three decades ago, has been a trenchant critic of the current government.

- Record turnout -

Polls indicate that Duda, backed by the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party, will fall short of a majority and there will need to be a run-off on July 12.

Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, a liberal from the Civic Platform (PO) opposition party who has promised to heal ties with Brussels, is predicted to be his rival in the second round.

Turnout was at a record high by 12:00 pm with 24.08 percent having voted compared to 14.61 percent by the same time in the last presidential election in 2015, the national election commission said.

The campaign has been dominated by concerns over democracy and bread and butter economic issues as Poland faces its first recession since the end of communism because of the pandemic fallout.

- 'I only see Duda as president' -

Voters in masks were seen waiting in long socially distanced queues at polling stations across the country.

"I voted for Trzaskowski of course! Why? For democracy, the judiciary and respect for minorities," said Joanna Ugniewska, 66, after casting her ballot at a polling station in a school in Warsaw city centre.

But in Tarnow in southern Poland, a stronghold for the PiS, Andrzej Guzik said he would be voting for Duda because of his consistency.

"Personally I only see Duda as president," said Guzik, 52, an employee at the PGNIG state gas company.

Poland's government has implemented popular social welfare payments in recent years but has also endorsed polarising legislation, especially judicial reforms.

While the PiS insists the changes are needed to weed out judicial corruption, critics and the EU sees them as eroding judicial independence and democracy just three decades after Poland shed communism.

Trump has instead given Duda his blessing this week, inviting him to the White House on Wednesday as the first foreign leader to visit since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Originally scheduled for May, the ballot was postponed due to the pandemic and a new hybrid system of postal and conventional voting was in place on Sunday in a bid to stop the election from causing a spike in infections.

Official figures show more than 33,000 cases and more than 1,400 deaths in this EU country of 38 million people, although the real number is believed to be much higher.

- Anti-gay rhetoric -

Duda has promised to defend the governing party's raft of social benefits -- a key factor behind the populists winning a second term in October's parliamentary election.

Duda has also echoed PiS attacks on LGBT+ rights and Western values.

Trzaskowski has instead supported 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, although many see his PO party as weak and ineffectual.

A central part of his campaign has been his vow to use the experience and contacts he gathered as a former European affairs minister to "fight hard" for a fair slice of the EU's 2021-27 budget.

- 'Budapest model'? -

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

According to Warsaw University political scientist Anna Materska-Sosowska, a win for Duda could lead to "a drift to the Budapest model (of Hungary's Viktor Orban) –- that's the danger".

Polling stations opened at 7:00 am (0500 GMT) and will close at 9:00 pm (1900 GMT), with an exit poll expected as soon as voting ends.