Polish voters denied President Andrzej Duda’s bid for quick re-election, forcing him into a runoff that risks halting a nationalist makeover of the eastern European country.
The second-round ballot — which opinion polls suggest is too close to call — will decide whether the European Union’s largest formerly communist county will complete a five-year drive that has put it at odds with the bloc’s democratic and multicultural values.
Duda won 41.8 percent of Sunday’s ballot, followed by 30.4 percent for opposition candidate and Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, according to an exit poll for Poland’s three main television broadcasters. If the results are confirmed, the two will square off in a final ballot on July 12.
"Thank you to all the people who trusted me after five years of attacks,” Duda told supporters on Sunday. "I won the first round decisively, my lead is significant.”
The runoff between the two 48-year-olds will determine whether the ruling Law and Justice party can complete its push to seize more control over the economy and the courts. Duda has endorsed the government’s power grab, while a Trzaskowski’s win could cut short the plans and help rebuild Poland’s strained ties with its EU partners.
The country of 38 million was hailed for most of the past three decades as a model of transformation from communism to a thriving democracy. But since 2015, Duda and his Law and Justice allies have clashed with the EU over everything from judicial independence and control of the media to LGBT rights.
The risk for an EU grappling with the pandemic and its economic fallout is that Poland may slide the way of Hungary, which has been transformed by Premier Viktor Orban into an "illiberal democracy.”
U.S. think tank Freedom House said that given Poland’s current trajectory, it — like Hungary — may not even be considered a functioning democracy by the end of Duda’s potential second term.
"If this continues for another five years it’s very likely that Poland will find itself outside the democracy category,” said Zselyke Csaky, a Freedom House research director.
Opinion polls taken before the first round put Duda and Trzaskowski neck-and-neck in the runoff, with the Warsaw Mayor seen gaining the votes won by most other opposition contenders and Duda those of an anti-EU nationalist candidate.
If Duda loses the face-off, it would allow Trzaskowski to block legislation and scupper Law and Justice’s platform. The party lacks enough seats in parliament to override presidential vetoes.
This creates risk for Polish assets by raising the possibility of an early general election in case Trzaskowski wins, according to Bank Millennium economist Grzegorz Maliszewski.
Duda was cruising for an apparent easy first-round win as recently as early May, but his campaign took a hit as measures to tackle the coronavirus put Poland on the path toward its first economic recession in three decades.
The president turned to familiar Law and Justice tactics when his popularity dipped. He picked on gay people, vowed to defend traditional family values and cozied up to Donald Trump during a visit to the White House four days before the vote.
By contrast Trzaskowski — a political scientist who took the capital city’s top job in 2018 — supports same-sex partnerships. The son of a famous jazz pianist who speaks five languages, he tapped into discontent with a rally cry of "We’ve had enough!”
"Poland has woken up and a majority wants change," Trzaskowski said.
Law and Justice built power by attacking "corrupt elites" and promising a fairer, safer country for ordinary citizens after decades of fast-paced changes following communism. But its five-year rule has been marred by unprecedented EU lawsuits detailing how it’s eroding democratic values and removing the checks and balances on its power.
Duda is backed by state-run television — the main source of news for many. It hailed his meeting with Trump, where no major deals were signed, as a turning point in Polish history.
The main nightly news program repeatedly questioned if Trzaskowski is a "true” Catholic and ran stories about whether his children went to first communion. It also stirred doubt over his ability to fight for Polish interests, because he once won a scholarship from a foundation linked to philanthropist George Soros, a figure demonized by far-right groups.
"The runoff is absolutely open,” said Andrzej Rychard, a sociology professor at the Polish Academy of Sciences.