Andrzej Duda, Law and Justice win 2nd presidential term in close Polish election
Result follows bitter campaign dominated by issues of culture
Polish President Andrzej Duda declared victory Monday in a runoff election in which he narrowly won a second five-year term, acknowledging the campaign he ran was often too harsh as he appealed for unity and forgiveness.
The close race followed a bitter campaign between Duda and Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski that was dominated by cultural issues. The government, state media and the influential Roman Catholic Church all mobilized in support of Duda and sought to stoke anti-Semitism, homophobia and xenophobia in order to shore up conservative support.
Duda celebrated what was seen as a mandate for him and the right-wing ruling party that backs him, Law and Justice, to continue on a path that has reduced poverty but raised concerns that democracy is under threat.
"It was a very sharp campaign, probably too sharp at times," Duda told supporters in Odrzywol, a town near Warsaw. "If anyone is offended by my words, please forgive me. And give me the chance to improve in the next five years."
Duda received slightly more than 51 per cent of Sunday's vote with 99.98 per cent of voting districts reporting, the state electoral commission said. Trzaskowski got slightly less than 49 per cent.
Duda told supporters in Odrzywol that he was grateful and moved by winning the support of more than 10 million voters. He said that with the race now over, it was time to turn to the difficult job of returning the country to strong growth after the economic blow of the coronavirus.
Liberal rival concedes
Trzaskowski conceded defeat and congratulated Duda. He thanked his supporters and said his strong showing would be the catalyst to fight to keep Poland from becoming a one-party state.
"This is just the beginning of the road," Trzaskowski said.
But Adam Michnik, a prominent anti-communist dissident and the founding editor of the liberal Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, said the result bodes badly for Poland's young democracy.
"Andrzej Duda's victory will be understood by his voters, and first of all by those in power, as a permission for the kind of politics that Law and Justice has been pursuing for almost five years, and that is a policy of the destruction of the democratic system, of isolating Poland in Europe, of homophobia, of xenophobia, nationalism and of using the Catholic Church as a tool," Michnik said.
"I would not even rule out a situation in which this policy is continued and we will see an attempt on the free media, culture and science, there could be another `Maidan,' " he said, referring to the bloody 2014 pro-Europe protests in Ukraine.
Critics and human rights groups worry Duda's victory will boost illiberal tendencies at home and in the European Union, which has also struggled to halt an erosion of rule of law in Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Orban posted a picture of himself on Facebook shaking hands with Duda in the Hungarian parliament with "Bravo!" and graphics of a hand showing a "V" for victory and a Polish flag.
Czech President Milos Zeman through a spokesperson said: "Long live Poland!"
Duda got an apparent endorsement from U.S. President Donald Trump with a last-minute White House invitation in late June. Trump praised Duda, saying: "He's doing a terrific job. The people of Poland think the world of him."
Sunday's vote was originally planned for May but was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. Turnout was very high at 68.1 per cent, close to a record set in 1995, in a sign of the huge stakes for Poles.
Trzaskowski, a former European Parliament lawmaker who jumped into the race late, said he wanted to protect the country's democratic values and unite the divided society, while preserving the popular welfare policies. He represented the centrist opposition Civic Platform party, which held power from 2007 to 2015. It oversaw strong economic growth but is now blamed by many for allowing the gap to grow between the rich and poor.
Duda's campaign focused on defending traditional family values in the predominantly Catholic country of 38 million people, and on preserving social spending policies.
The party's policies include hugely popular monthly cash bonuses of 500 zlotys ($172 Cdn) per child to all families irrespective of income. They have helped alleviate poverty in rural regions, and given all families more money to spend.
Duda and the party, both in power since 2015, also solidified support among older Poles by lowering the retirement age and introducing a yearly cash bonus called a "13th pension."
Many credit Law and Justice, under party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, for making good on promises to reduce the economic inequality that came with the country's transition from communism to a market economy three decades ago. There is a strong sense among them that the economic help is restoring a sense of dignity to their lives after many decades of hardship caused by war, communism and the economic dislocations of capitalism.
The party has also stoked conflict with the EU with laws that have given it vast new powers over the top courts and judicial bodies. Officials in Brussels have repeatedly expressed concerns over the rule of law in both Poland and Hungary, which were for many years hailed as the most successful new democracies to emerge from behind the Iron Curtain.
Poland's populist politicians have in the past two years frequently used rhetoric discriminating against LGBT people and other minorities, and the party has turned public television into a propaganda tool used during the campaign to praise Duda and cast Trzaskowski in a negative light.
As the race tightened in recent weeks, Duda turned further to the right in search of votes. He denounced the LGBT rights movement as an "ideology" worse than communism.
Meanwhile, party leader Kaczynski denounced LGBT rights as a foreign import that threatens Polish identity.