Warsaw: People wearing face masks observe mandatory social distancing against the spread of the coronavirus as they wait in line to cast their votes in Poland’s presidential election on Sunday.—Reuters
Warsaw: People wearing face masks observe mandatory social distancing against the spread of the coronavirus as they wait in line to cast their votes in Poland’s presidential election on Sunday.—Reuters

WARSAW: Poles voted in a presidential election on Sunday that was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic and was taking place amid deep cultural and political divisions in the European Union nation.

President Andrzej Duda, a 48-year-old conservative backed by the nationalist ruling Law and Justice party, was running against 10 other candidates as he sought a second five-year term. Whether Duda wins or not will determine whether the ruling party keeps its near-monopoly on political power in Poland.

Turnout at noon was 24.08pc which the State Electoral Commission said was a “record” for that time in Poland’s 30 years of democracy. It could have been helped by the fact that people were advised to vote early in the day and avoid last-moment lines amid the pandemic. Still, in many places there were lines.

Most recent polls showed that no single candidate was likely to reach the 50pc required to avoid a runoff given the crowded field of candidates, all of whom are male. In that case, the two top vote-getters will face each other on July 12.

The vote had been scheduled for May 10 but was postponed in a chaotic political and legal battle as the ruling party pressed to hold it despite the pandemic.

The final official results are expected by late Wednesday, after all votes sent from abroad are counted.

Polling ahead of Sunday’s vote suggested Duda was the front-runner but might not win the required majority needed to win outright. Polls also showed that he would have a more difficult time in a runoff given that many opposition votes would be expected to unite against him.

Duda’s strongest challenge comes from the Warsaw mayor, Rafal Trzaskowski, also 48, who is backed by the centrist Civic Platform party. Trzaskowski entered the race late after the May election date was scrapped.

Duda’s once-strong support, bolstered by adulatory coverage in state media, began to slip once virus lockdown restrictions were lifted and other candidates could campaign.

Poland has not been as badly hit by the pandemic as many countries in Western Europe, and most people were voting in person, though required to wear masks and observe other hygiene rules. There was also a mail-in voting option, and thousands of voters in some southwestern regions with higher virus infection numbers were required to vote by mail.

As of Sunday, Poland had nearly 34,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 among its 38 million people, with over 1,400 deaths.

Duda’s campaign focused on defending traditional values in the mostly Catholic nation while promising to keep raising living standards to Western European levels.

That kind of rhetoric along with laws that have given the Law and Justice party much greater control over the justice system and the party’s harnessing of public media to promote the government’s image have raised concerns among some that Poland is following Hungary in eroding democratic norms established after communism collapsed three decades ago.

Published in Dawn, June 29th, 2020