Andrzej Duda, Poland’s conservative, populist incumbent, has a slight edge over challenger Rafal Trzaskowski, the liberal, pro-Europe mayor of Warsaw, in a nail-biting runoff for the presidency reflecting the country’s deep divisions.
An updated late poll by Ipsos, which combines exit poll data with official results for 90 percent of the polling stations that took part in the exit poll, gave Duda 51 percent of the vote with a margin of error of one percentage point.
An earlier exit poll with a margin of error of plus or minus two percentage points, gave Duda 50.4 percent of the vote and Trzaskowski 49.6 percent.
Official results are expected later on Monday.
Duda, who is backed by the ruling right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS), campaigned on traditional values and social spending in the mostly Catholic country in his battle for a second five-year term. His victory would have profound implications for Poland’s relationship with the EU.
Trzaskowski, a former European Parliament lawmaker, joined 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 that was in power in from 2007 to 2015.
“All we need is to count the votes. The night will be tense, but I am certain that when the votes are counted, we will win,” Trzaskowski told supporters in a park outside Warsaw’s old town just after the exit poll.
Duda’s re-election would open up the prospect of three years of uninterrupted rule by PiS, which won control of the lower house in 2015. 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 the EU. The next national election is not due until 2023.
The State Electoral Commission said the turnout by 5pm (15:00 GMT) was 52.1 percent, more than four points higher than at the same time in the first round of voting on June 28 when Duda got 43.5 percent support and Trzaskowski 30.5 percent.
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 are eligible to cast ballots.
People waited in long queues at voting stations across the country, especially in seaside resorts where many Poles were on holiday.
“We should vote because otherwise we have no right to complain about our politics,” said Eugeniusz Kowalski, 67, a retired office clerk, after he had cast his ballot in Warsaw.
Poles vote in presidential polls that could define EU ties
“We could use some change,” he added.
The head of Poland’s influential Roman Catholic Church, Archbishop Wojciech Polak, said the new president should be conciliatory.
“In the situation when we see constant discord, divisions, the rift in society, let him be a unifying one, the president of all Poles,” Polak said after voting in Gniezno.
Duda voted in his hometown of Krakow while Trzaskowski voted in his wife’s southern hometown of Rybnik.
“This is a civic duty but also a privilege because this is a very important election,” Trzaskowski said after voting. “I hope the turnout will really be high.”
The ruling party and Duda have won popularity through a welfare programme that improved the lives of many impoverished families with children and retirees, 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 and LGBT people.
Trzaskowski has promised to close social rifts and to continue the benefits policy. His support is strongest in larger cities and among more highly educated people.
Due to the pandemic, the voting was held under strict sanitary regulations. Poland has registered more than 37,000 cases of COVID-19 and almost 1,600 deaths.