After tight race for polish president, Andrzej Duda wins 2nd term

By Monika Pronczuk and Marc Santora

President Andrzej Duda of Poland was narrowly elected to a second term after the votes were counted Monday following the country’s closest presidential election since the end of communist rule in 1989, clearing a potential obstacle for the conservative nationalist government.

Duda and the governing party have fought to control the courts and media, while stoking fear of gay people, the European Union and foreigners. For many in the opposition, the race was not only a contest between competing visions for Poland, but a last chance to save institutions that form the bedrock of a healthy democracy.

While the tight vote underscored the extent to which the deep divisions in Poland have only intensified after five years governed by the Law and Justice party, there was no suggestion the government would now change course.

Duda’s promise to protect “traditional families” resonated with older voters and churchgoers, especially in the eastern half of the country, helping him fend off a fierce challenge from Rafal Trzaskowski, the liberal mayor of Warsaw.

The opposition was fueled by support from young people around the country, securing a majority of votes from people under 50, and turnout was among the highest since the country turned away from communism.

Poland’s major cities, from Gdansk in the north to Krakow in the south, were bastions of resistance, but the governing party rallied its faithful in rural communities, many left behind in the rapid transition from communism to capitalism.

Trzaskowski conceded defeat Monday afternoon after the country’s electoral commission said that with 100% of the actual vote counted, Duda had secured 51.03% of the vote. Trzaskowski won 48.97%. The turnout was 68.18%.

While Duda struck a conciliatory tone in remarks to supporters Sunday, Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro said Monday that Duda would continue to advance the government’s agenda, which he described as “pro-family policies,” a focus on social issues and “a more just redistribution” of wealth.

“Most important,” he said, “is to complete the judiciary reform and other state bodies, so everything is more professional, faster.”

Writing on Twitter, Trzaskowski thanked the roughly 10 million people who voted for him, but conceded the contest. It was a bitter defeat for opponents of the government.

The Warsaw mayor was not even a candidate when the election was postponed in May because of the coronavirus, but he mounted a serious challenge against an incumbent president who had the backing of state television and important church leaders.

With the next parliamentary elections not scheduled until 2023, Duda’s reelection ensured that the governing party, which also controls the parliament, will be able to continue to reshape the nation in ways that critics contend undermine open political debate and the rule of law, and put it at odds with the European Union, which has accused Poland of damaging democratic values and institutions.

Trzaskowski had cast the election as a fight for the soul of the nation. He promised to end a government that uses state media to promote its views and silence opposing voices, manipulates the courts and uses fear and division to build support.

The mayor, whose campaign rallies were as likely to feature the blue and gold of the EU flag as the red and white of Poland, said he wanted to live in a country where “an open hand wins against a clenched fist.”

Duda, however, dismissed concerns about Poland’s illiberal drift as an invention of foreign interests. He attacked Trzaskowski over his support for LGBT rights — a powerful argument in a staunchly Catholic country, particularly outside its cosmopolitan cities.

Thomas Boserup, an independent election observer from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said the voting and counting process was carried out well and all the coronavirus precautions were observed. But he said that there were threats reported against journalists and politicians.

“The polarization was illustrated by the fact that candidates did not participate in one debate, depriving the voters from comparing their views,” he said, noting that public television had failed in its duty to impartially cover the election. “We were worried by instances of intolerant rhetoric of a homophobic, xenophobic and anti-Semitic nature, particularly among the president’s campaign and the public television.”

Duda’s campaign received a boost recently from President Donald Trump, who met with him at the White House just days before the election and all but endorsed him.

“He’s doing a terrific job,” Trump said of the incumbent. “The people of Poland think the world of him.”

An already bitter campaign turned even uglier in the final days before Sunday’s vote, with Duda, the Law and Justice party and its supporters in the right-wing media launching a barrage of attacks on Trzaskowski.

In the pro-government weekly Sieci, the Warsaw mayor was accused of supporting pedophilia. State television, which has been turned into a propaganda machine for the government, suggested that Trzaskowski would be controlled by Jewish interests in complicated questions related to restitution of property dating from World War II.

Independent news outlets faced escalating attacks during the campaign, with the governing party claiming that Germany and other outside powers were trying to meddle in Poland’s affairs.

“Have you ever heard such homophobia, such anti-Semitism, such attacks on everybody who is brave enough to say ‘We have had enough’?” Trzaskowski asked supporters Friday.

“It’s now or never,” he said.

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