Incumbent ahead in Polish presidential election, late exit poll shows

Poland's incumbent president Andrzej Duda widened his lead in the presidential election, an updated late poll showed, a victory which if confirmed would allow the ruling nationalists to deepen their conservative reforms.

Exit poll shows President Andrzej Duda leads against opponent Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski

Polls were open in Poland on Sunday in the runoff vote for president. (Adam Stepien/Agencja Gazeta via Reuters)

Poland's incumbent president Andrzej Duda widened his lead in the presidential election, an updated late poll showed, a victory which if confirmed would allow the ruling nationalists to deepen their conservative reforms.

The updated late poll combines exit poll data with official results for 90 per cent of the polling stations that took part in the exit poll.

Duda, an ally of the ruling nationalists Law and Justice (PiS), received 51 per cent of the vote, according to the updated late poll.

Liberal Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, the candidate of the largest opposition party, the centrist Civic Platform (PO), came second with 49 per cent.

Opinion polls before the election had shown the candidates, both 48, neck and neck, with Trzaskowski having closed the gap on Duda, who initially looked like a clear favorite.

Acrimonious campaign

Backed by the government, Duda ran an acrimonious campaign, laced with homophobic language, attacks on independent media and accusations levied against Trzaskowski that he would serve foreign interests instead of Poland's.

Duda, a devout believer, had painted himself as a defender of Catholic values and of the government's generous social benefit programs that have transformed life for many, especially in the poorer rural regions of the country.

Andrzej Duda, the ruling president of Poland backed by the right-wing Law and Justice party, delivers a speech for locals and supporters during a campaign rally on July 9 in Wieliczka, Poland. (Omar Marques/Getty Images)

He appeared conciliatory on Sunday. "If anyone was offended by anything I did or said in the last five years, not just during the campaign, please accept my apology," he told supporters in Pultusk, a small town north of the capital.

Vote-counting was expected to continue through the night, but the electoral commission said it would not announce partial results as it has done in the past, but only the final result, possibly on Monday.

Borys Budka, the head of Trzaskowski's PO party, said it was "a scandal" that some voters abroad did not receive their mail-in ballots on time. "This a great failure of the state, regardless of who wins," Budka told private broadcaster TVN24.

The election was the first time all voters had a choice to cast ballots by mail, a change in rules necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Opponent called for more tolerant Poland

For many religious conservatives in Poland, Trzaskowski came to represent the threats facing traditional values when he pledged to introduce education about LGBT rights in the city's schools.

The archbishop of Krakow, Marek Jedraszewski, told worshippers in the southern city of Czestochowa on Saturday that Poland faced a "lethal danger" from ideologies that seek to undermine the traditional family structure and corrupt children.

Trzaskowski says he seeks a more tolerant Poland and has criticized PiS' rhetoric, vowing to abolish state news channel TVP Info, which critics say gave overt support to Duda in its programming.

"In politics, you should have opponents, not enemies," Trzaskowski said on Sunday. "They thought they had full power, but today they have fear in their eyes."

Warsaw Mayor and candidate in Poland's presidential election, Rafal Trzaskowski, greets supporters on July 9, 2020 during a campaign meeting in Raciaz, Poland. (Janek Skarzynski/AFP via Getty Images)

Duda's re-election to a second five-year term would open up the prospect of three years of uninterrupted rule by PiS, which has controlled the powerful lower house of parliament since 2015, with the next national election scheduled for 2023.

Observers say his defeat could undermine the fragile parliamentary majority that supports the PiS government, raising the spectre of political instability as Poland is coping with the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

"It's the first time since 2015 when we are not discussing the scale of a PiS victory but whether it will win at all," said Rafal Chwedoruk, a political analyst.

The election is being closely watched in Brussels.

Before PiS and Duda came to power in 2015, Poland had one of the most pro-European administrations in the bloc's ex-communist east. But it has grown increasingly isolated, with divisions focusing on climate change and migration, in addition to democratic norms.