Poland’s tightly fought and intensely polarising presidential election has gone down to the wire as an exit poll showed the incumbent, Andrzej Duda, leading his liberal challenger, Rafał Trzaskowski, by less than one percentage point, on 50.4% to 49.6%.
The figures were well within the poll’s margin of error of 2%, meaning the outcome was still up in the air on Sunday evening. Results are due to come in gradually overnight, with the final totals due on Monday morning.
The result is seen as crucial for the future direction of Poland and its relations with the rest of Europe. Duda is allied to the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), and a win for him would give PiS control of most of the levers of power for several more years, allowing it to continue an agenda that has eroded the rule of law and judicial independence, putting Poland on a collision course with the EU.
If Trzaskowski wins, he will be able to use the presidential veto to stymie the PiS legislative agenda, and will portray a more liberal and pro-EU face of Poland to the outside world.
The two 48-year-olds emerged from a first-round field of 11 candidates, all of them male. Duda won 43.5% of the first vote while Trzaskowski got 30.5%, but most polls suggested the run-off would be a very close call.
Turnout by 5pm was 52%, about four points higher than at the same time in the first round. It was up more in smaller towns, which have traditionally favoured Duda, but there were also more than half a million voters who had registered to vote abroad, a record number. These included 180,000 in the UK, where voters scrambled to return postal ballots on time as in-person voting was not allowed.
Fewer than 150,000 votes separate the two candidates, meaning the ballots cast by Poles living in Britain could play a decisive role. Trzaskowski won more than twice as many votes from abroad as Duda in the first round a fortnight ago.
Trzaskowski, the mayor of Warsaw, has claimed this is the last chance to reverse the democratic backsliding that has taken place during the last five years of PiS government. “It’s now or never,” he said last week. Either the ruling party would “continue to destroy independent institutions, further try to politicise courts, destroy local governments and threaten the freedom of the media, or we will have a democratic state where the president restores the balance,” he said.
The PiS leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, also portrayed the election as “a battle for the future of Poland”, reprising a theme that has played out in government media outlets suggesting that Trzaskowski is beholden to shadowy foreign interests.
Duda has portrayed himself as a president who has improved the country’s economy over the past five years, but he has also pledged to defend “family values” at the expense of LGBT rights. His campaign has been laced with homophobic rhetoric, as he turned the fight against so-called “LGBT ideology” into one of his main talking points.
This combination of rightwing social and cultural policies with increased state disbursal of money has proved a winning combination for PiS in small towns and villages in recent years.
Many progressive voters voiced fears for their own futures were Duda to be re-elected. “I voted for Trzaskowski out of political conviction,” said Aleksandra, a 30-year-old voter in Piaseczno, a satellite town to the south of Warsaw. “I want equality, I don’t want to feel like some people are worse than others. I will see what the result is but I have already been considering leaving the country and maybe after this election I will go.”
The election was meant to take place in May, when Duda was riding high in the polls and was expected to win easily. However, with coronavirus restrictions in place, plans for a full postal vote were abandoned a few days before the election as impossible to implement.
Poland has had 37,000 confirmed coronavirus infections and 1,600 deaths, but restrictions have been largely eased in recent weeks. Voters on Sunday were required to wear masks and gloves and maintain social distancing.