by Vanessa Gera and Monika Scislowska
WARSAW, Poland (AP) — A late exit poll for Poland’s presidential runoff Sunday showed the conservative, populist incumbent, Andrzej Duda, leading against the liberal, pro-Europe mayor of Warsaw, but with the race still too close to call.
It appeared to be the closest election in Poland’s history, reflecting the deep divisions in this European Union nation.
The exit poll by the Ipsos institute showed Duda with 50.8% of the vote and challenger Rafal Trzaskowski with 49.2%. An earlier exit poll had showed Duda with 50.4% and Trzaskowski 49.6%. The polls had margins for error of plus-or-minus 1 percentage point and 2 points, respectively.
Official results are not expected until Monday or Tuesday.
Long lines outside some polling stations Sunday night forced them to stay open past their official closing time of 9 p.m. for what many considered to be one of the most crucial elections in Poland’s three decades of democracy.
Duda expressed confidence that the results would confirm his victory, and he called the high turnout “a beautiful testimony of our democracy.”
Duda said the turnout was nearly 70%, which would be a record high for a presidential election in the 30 years since Poland threw off communism, embraced democracy and later gained membership in NATO and the EU.
At an election night event, Trzaskowski said he still believed the numbers could turn in his favor. He did not say why, but the exit poll did not reflect the votes cast from abroad, and a majority of them were expected to go to Trzaskowski.
He said he was still dreaming of a Poland “that knows how to rebuild a united society, that is proud of it’s tradition, that is looking to the future, that is just, European, tolerant, where no one divides us.”
“I am convinced that this dream will be fulfilled tomorrow,” he said.
The result is expected to lead to starkly different political paths for Poland, at least until 2023, when the next parliamentary election is scheduled.
Duda, who is backed by the ruling right-wing Law and Justice party and the government, campaigned on traditional values and social spending in this mostly Catholic nation as he sought a second 5-year term.
As the race became tighter in recent weeks, Duda turned further to the right in search of votes. He seized on gay rights as a key theme, denouncing the LGBT rights movement as an “ideology” worse than communism. His campaign also repeatedly claimed that Trzaskowski would take welfare money from Polish families and give it to foreign Jews — something Trzaskowski never said he would do.
On Sunday night Duda said he didn’t regret anything he said in the campaign because “I said what I believe.”
Trzaskowski, a former European Parliament lawmaker, jumped into the race relatively late to oppose Duda’s denigration of urban liberals, the LGBT community and other minorities and to counter an erosion of democratic rights under the ruling party. He represented the centrist opposition Civic Platform party, which was in power in from 2007 to 2015.
If Duda is reelected, the populist Law and Justice party will keep a close ally in the president and maintain its hold on almost all key instruments of power in the nation of 38 million people. A win for Trzaskowski would give him the power to veto laws passed by the ruling conservatives and give Poland a less contentious relationship with European Union officials.
Duda had the full mobilization of the government, public media, and the help of President Donald Trump, who welcomed him at the White House last month and appeared to endorse him.
Those supporting Trzaskowski saw the election as possibly a last chance to halt an erosion of the rule of law under Duda and the ruling party, both in power since 2015.
The ballot was supposed to be held in May but after much political wrangling was delayed by health concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic. Some 30 million voters were eligible to cast ballots. In the first round with 11 candidates, Duda got 43.5% support and Trzaskowski 30.5%.
The ruling party and Duda have won popularity through a welfare program that improved the lives of many impoverished retirees and families with children, especially in rural areas and small towns, and also through their attachment to Poland’s traditional Roman Catholic values.
But the ruling party has drawn criticism from EU leaders for taking steps to politically influence the justice system and the media in Poland. It has also deepened social rifts with verbal attacks on urban liberals, Jews and the LGBT community.
Trzaskowski vowed to close the social rifts in Poland but keep the benefits payments coming. Sunday’s exit polls showed his support strongest among younger people, in larger cities and among more highly educated people.
Due to the pandemic, the voting was held under strict sanitary regulations. Poland has registered over 37,000 infections and almost 1,600 virus-related deaths. Voters had to wear masks and gloves, maintain a safe distance and use hand sanitizer. They used their own pens to mark ballots.
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Vanessa Gera and Monika Scislowska are reporters at The Associated Press.
About the Headline Photo: In this Tuesday, July 7, 2020 photo Poland’s incumbent president Andrzej Duda, who is seeking reelection in a tight presidential election runoff on Sunday, July 12, 2020 attends a rally in Lomza, Poland. Duda, who has backing from Poland’s ruling right-wing party, is running against liberal Warsaw mayor, Rafal Trzaskowski. Opinion polls suggest the election may be decided by a small number of votes. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)