Voters in Poland
turned out heavily Sunday to cast ballots in the razor blade-close presidential runoff between the conservative, populist incumbent and the liberal, pro-Europe mayor of Warsaw a battle that reflected the deep divisions in this European Union nation.
President Andrzej Duda, who is backed by the ruling right-wing Law and Justice party and the government, has campaigned on traditional values and social spending in this mostly Catholic nation as he seeks a second 5-year term.
Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, a former European Parliament lawmaker, jumped into the race relatively late to oppose Duda's denigration of urban liberals, the LGBT community and other minorities and to counter an erosion of democratic rights under the ruling party. He is representing the centrist opposition Civic Platform party that was in power in from 2007 to 2015.
The latest polls show the race between the two 48-year-old candidates may be decided by a very small margin. The result is expected to lead to starkly different political paths for Poland, at least until 2023, when the next parliamentary election is scheduled.
The State Electoral Commission said the turnout by 5 p.m. was 52.1%, more than four points higher than at that time in the first round of voting on June 28 one sign of just how much Poles on both sides feel their nation's future is at stake.
The ballot was supposed to be held in May but after much political wrangling was delayed by health concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic. Some 30 million voters are eligible to cast ballots.
In the first round, Duda got 43.5% support and Trzaskowski 30.5%, but on Sunday the mayor is expected to pick up support from most centrist voters who backed candidates who were eliminated.
Those who supported a far-right candidate two weeks ago are seen as critical swing votes on Sunday.
If Duda is reelected, the right-wing Law and Justice party will continue to have a close ally in the president and maintain its hold on almost all key instruments of power in the nation of 38 million people.
A win for Trzaskowski would give him the power to veto laws passed by the ruling conservatives and give Poland
a less contentious relationship with EU officials.
People were seen waiting in lines at voting stations across the country, especially in seaside resorts where many Poles were vacationing.
We should vote because otherwise we have no right to complain about our politics, said Eugeniusz Kowalski, 67, a retired office clerk, after voting in Warsaw.
We could use some change, he added.
The head of Poland's influential Roman Catholic Church, Archbishop Wojciech Polak, said the new president should be conciliatory.
In the situation when we see constant discord, divisions, the rift in society, let him be a unifying one, the president of all Poles, Polak said after voting in Gniezno.
Duda voted in his hometown of Krakow while Trzaskowski voted in his wife's southern hometown of Rybnik.
This is a civic duty but also a privilege because this is a very important election," Trzaskowski said after voting. I hope the turnout will really be high.
The ruling party and Duda have won popularity through a welfare program that improved the lives of many impoverished families with children and retirees, especially in rural areas and small towns, and also through their attachment to Poland's traditional Roman Catholic values.
But the ruling party has drawn criticism from EU leaders for taking steps to politically influence the justice system and the media in Poland.
It has also deepened social rifts with verbal attacks on urban liberals and the LGBT community.
Trzaskowski has vowed to close the social rifts and to continue the benefits policy. His support is strongest in larger cities and among more highly educated people.
Due to the pandemic, the voting is being held under strict sanitary regulations. Poland has registered over 37,000 infections and almost 1,600 deaths.
Voters must wear masks and gloves, maintain a safe distance and use hand sanitizer. They can use their own pens to mark ballots. Election officials must wear masks and sit wide apart from each other.
Ballot boxes were being regularly disinfected and the polling stations were frequently ventilated.
The powerful ruling party leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, was the target of a prank when he voted in Warsaw. A man approached the ballot box alongside Kaczynski wearing a face shield and a print-out of Kaczynski's likeness over his own face.
The back of his T-shirt read fight evil with laughter while the front had a cat added to a famous Leonardo da Vinci painting an apparent reference to Kaczynski's love of cats.
Exit polls were being released after the polls close at 9 p.m. The final official results are expected early in the week.