Exit polls give Duda narrow lead in Polish election

Incumbent Andrzej Duda has a narrow lead over his challenger Rafal Trzaskowski in Poland’s hotly-contested presidential election, according to a late poll on Sunday night

The poll, which combines exit poll data with partial early results, put Mr Duda, backed by the conservative-nationalist ruling Law and Justice party, on course for 50.8 per cent. Mr Trzaskowski, from the centre-right opposition party Civic Coalition, was headed for 49.2 per cent.

However, the poll’s margin of error was two percentage points, meaning that the result remains too close to call. An earlier exit poll had given Mr Duda a slightly smaller advantage of 50.4 per cent to 49.6 per cent. Final results are due on Monday or Tuesday.

Both sides of Poland’s partisan divide have cast Sunday’s election as a fork in the road for the EU’s fifth-biggest member state, which is deeply divided between its conservative small towns and countryside, and its more liberal big cities, such as Warsaw, Lodz and Wroclaw.

A win for Mr Duda, a 48-year-old social conservative who comfortably won the first round of the election two weeks ago, would maintain Law and Justice’s hold on power at least until parliamentary elections in 2023, and allow the party to continue a judicial overhaul that has sparked bitter clashes between Warsaw and Brussels.

Victory for Mr Trzaskowski, the 48-year-old mayor of Warsaw who previously served as Europe minister in the centre-right government of Donald Tusk, would give the opposition control of the presidency’s veto powers, and allow it to act as a check on the ruling party.

Turnout was forecast to be almost 70 per cent, which would be the highest figure on record.

The election campaign, waged over almost six months after the coronavirus pandemic forced the vote to be postponed from its original date in May, has become a bitter battle between two clashing visions of Polish identity.

Mr Duda began the campaign touting big infrastructure projects planned by Law and Justice, and positioning himself as a guarantor of the party’s generous welfare programmes, which have significantly improved the lives of many poorer Polish families.

But as the race has narrowed, he has increasingly also sought to mobilise support by casting himself as a bulwark against foreign threats to Poland’s traditional Catholic values.

A victory for Rafal Trzaskowski would give the opposition control of the presidency’s veto powers © AFP via Getty Images

At a rally last month, he branded the LGBT rights movement an ideology “more destructive” than communism. Last week, he accused German-owned media of trying to interfere in the election. State media, which has relentlessly backed Mr Duda, has also used the highly charged question of Jewish property restitution to mobilise against Mr Trzaskowski.

Mr Duda’s rhetoric has resonated with many conservative Poles. “This is a civilisational election, between our catholic Christian civilisation and neo-paganism,” said Ewa, a mathematician from Targowek, a district in north-east Warsaw who voted for Mr Duda. “Trzaskowski represents the latter. As [mayor of Warsaw], he officially supported . . . the Pride Parade. It’s clear what kind of man he is.”

Mr Trzaskowski has sought to parry Mr Duda’s attacks by largely avoiding the topic of LGBT rights, and promising not to abandon Law and Justice’s popular welfare programmes.

Instead, he has promised small investments “around the corner” from ordinary Poles. He has also pledged to try to repair Poland’s frayed relations with the EU, and attacked Mr Duda for failing to stand up to Law and Justice, a criticism that echoes with many liberal voters.

“This is the most important election since 1989,” said Sebastian, a pharmaceuticals worker who backed Mr Trzaskowski. “I look from the perspective of my children, so that they don’t go abroad to EU countries and have to be ashamed of being Polish. If the current president wins, we will go 20 years back. We will be closer to Belarus than to western countries.”

Mr Duda began the election campaign in February as favourite, and when the pandemic hit in the spring, his support briefly soared towards 60 per cent.

However, after the election was postponed from its original date of May 10, Civic Coalition replaced its struggling candidate, Malgorzata Kidawa Blonska, with Mr Trzaskowski, and the race then narrowly sharply.

Opinion surveys over the past week have suggested that either Mr Duda or Mr Trzaskowski could win, with the difference between them within the polls’ margin of error.