Poland holds presidential election delayed by pandemic

Poles are voting in a presidential election that had been scheduled for May but was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, a ballot taking place amid deep cultural and political divisions in the European Union nation.

Vote will test popularity of incumbent president, running against Warsaw's mayor

An elderly resident wearing a face mask and protective gloves casts a ballot during Poland's presidential election in Warsaw. The election will test the popularity of incumbent President Andrzej Duda who is seeking a second term and of the conservative ruling party that backs him. (Petr David Josek/The Associated Press)

Poles began voting in a presidential election Sunday that had been scheduled for May but was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, a ballot 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, is running against 10 other candidates as he seeks 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.

Most recent polls showed that no single candidate was likely to reach the 50 per cent required to avoid a runoff. In that case, the two top vote-getters will face each other on July 12.

Polling stations remain open until 9 p.m. (1900 GMT), and exit polls will be announced immediately afterward. The final officials results are expected by Wednesday at the latest.

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.

Andrzej Duda, the president of Poland backed by the governing right-wing Law and Justice party, delivers a speech for locals and supporters during a campaign rally before Sunday's presidential elections, on June 25, in Radom, Poland. (Omar Marques/Getty Images)

Duda's campaign focused on defending traditional values in the mostly Catholic nation while promising to raise living standards to Western European levels. He took a position against same-sex marriage and adoption by gay couples, and he denounced the LGBT rights movement as a dangerous "ideology."

That kind of rhetoric — along with laws that have given the conservative Law and Justice party much greater control over the justice system and the ability to harness 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.

Duda's strongest challenge comes from the Warsaw mayor, Rafal Trzaskowski, also 48, who is backed by the centrist Civic Platform party.

Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, a candidate for the presidency, greets the public in Poznan, Poland on May 30. (Janek Skarzynski/AFP via Getty Images)

On the campaign trail, Trzaskowski, has promised to keep Law and Justice's popular social welfare spending programs while vowing to restore constitutional norms.

Trzaskowski entered the race late after an election originally scheduled for May 10 was scrapped due to the pandemic. Duda's once strong support, bolstered by adulatory coverage in public media, began to slip once virus lockdown restrictions were lifted and other candidates could campaign.

Polling ahead of Sunday's vote suggested Duda was the front-runner but might not reach the 50 per cent 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 consolidate against Duda.

The other candidates include Szymon Holownia, a TV personality and journalist who had once studied to be a priest. Holownia is unaffiliated with any party and has generated some enthusiasm among those tired of years of bickering between Law and Justice and Civic Platform, the country's two main parties.

Also in the running are a left-wing politician who is Poland's first openly gay presidential contender, Robert Biedron; the head of an agrarian party, Wladyslaw Kosiniak-Kamysz; and a lawmaker with the far-right Confederation party, Krzysztof Bosak.