Populist president tops Polish election

WARSAW (AFP) – Right-wing populist Andrzej Duda, a close ally of Donald Trump, led his europhile challenger by a thin margin in Poland’s presidential election, near-complete results showed yesterday.

Incumbent Duda was ahead with 51.21 per cent in Sunday’s vote, Poland’s national elections commission said, citing returns from 99.7 per cent of constituencies.

Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, a liberal who has promised to heal ties with the European Union, was on 48.79 per cent.

The result cements the power of the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party, which is on a collision course with Brussels over a reform of the judiciary which critics said is eroding democratic freedoms.

Duda promises to defend highly popular social welfare payments introduced by the PiS government and has led a polarising campaign.

Incumbent President Andrzej Duda flashes a victory sign in Pultusk, Poland. PHOTO: AP

But analysts in Warsaw also said that Trzaskowski’s strong performance suggested a “new dynamic” for Poland’s waning opposition and “significant changes” on the political scene.

“Poland divided”, read a front-page headline in the Rzeczpospolita daily, while the Super Express tabloid said: “Poland torn in two”.

Duda’s support was particularly strong in rural areas and small towns and in the east of the country, while Trzaskowski has performed well in larger cities and western regions on the border with Germany. “The result of these elections is a Poland divided in two with a not-so-rosy future, as it will be difficult to ease the division and to restore the relationship between the two sides,” analyst Kazimierz Kik told AFP.

Experts said the close result could lead to legal challenges. Anna Materska-Sosnowska, a Warsaw University political scientist, said: “I think there will certainly be electoral protests and I think the whole issue will end up in the Supreme Court.”

Wojciech, a 59-year-old builder who declined to give his surname, said he had voted for Duda because his close ties to US President Donald Trump meant Poland “can count on the US for defence”. But Warsaw pensioner Danuta Lutecka told AFP that “it’s important for there to be calm and good cooperation with our European partners”. She said she had chosen Trzaskowski, hoping for “less hate, less division” among Poles.

The election had been due to be held in May but was delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Its fallout is pushing Poland into its first recession since communism fell three decades ago.

The incumbent won round one on June 28 with 43.5 per cent against 10 challengers, including Trzaskowski who came in second with 30.4 per cent.

Four days before the first round, Duda became the first foreign leader to visit the White House since the start of the pandemic and received praise from US President Donald Trump for doing an “excellent job”.