Polish President Andrzej Duda (top) and his challenger Rafal Trzaskowski will contest a run-off vote next month. — AFP/VNA Photo
WARSAW — Polish President Andrzej Duda is set for a tight run-off against Warsaw's liberal mayor next month after Sunday's inconclusive first-round vote, leaving the fate of the populist right-wing government in the balance.
Duda, who is backed by the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party, is expected to come out on top in the first-round vote with 41.8 per cent, according to an exit poll by Ipsos.
Rafal Trzaskowski, who has promised to heal rifts with the European Union, is set to come second with 30.4 per cent, but could receive endorsements from other opposition candidates ahead of the July 12 second round of voting.
"I will be the candidate of change!" Trzaskowski said at an election night party in a redeveloped former power station in Warsaw.
Trzaskowski, who is also 48 and is from the Civic Platform (PO) party, appealed to voters "who want an open Poland, not a Poland always looking for enemies".
The election was scheduled to be held in May but had to be postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Voters came out in large numbers despite contagion fears, waiting in socially distanced queues outside polling stations and casting ballots in their masks and visors.
Turnout was high compared to previous votes at 62.9 per cent, the exit poll said.
‘A decisive time'
Duda is seen as a key ally by Donald Trump and received the US president's blessing when he visited the White House earlier this week, the first foreign leader to do so since the pandemic began.
Experts were divided on who could win the election next month.
Kazimierz Kik, professor of political science at the Jan Kochanowski University in Kielce in south central Poland, said he believed Duda had "greater potential" than Trzaskowski to mobilise voters who stayed at home on Sunday.
But Stanislaw Mocek, head of the Collegium Civitas University in Warsaw, said Trzaskowski had a "good chance" of winning in the second round.
The campaign was dominated by concerns over an erosion of democratic rights and bread and butter economic issues.
"I voted for Trzaskowski of course! Why? For democracy, the judiciary and respect for minorities," said Joanna Ugniewska, 66, after casting her ballot at a polling station in a school in Warsaw city centre.
But in Tarnow in southern Poland, a PiS stronghold, Andrzej Guzik said he would be voting for Duda because of his consistent leadership.
"Personally I only see Duda as president," said Guzik, 52, an employee at the PGNIG state gas company.
Poland's government has implemented popular social welfare payments in recent years, which Trzaskowski has promised to retain if he wins.
Victory for Duda would cement the party's hold on power -- at least until the next scheduled parliamentary elections in 2023.
But defeat could see its influence unravel and trigger early elections.
During the campaign, Duda stoked controversy by echoing PiS attacks on gay rights and Western values.
Trzaskowski, however, supports gay rights and says he is open to the idea of same-sex civil partnerships.
Campaigning with the slogan "Enough is Enough", Trzaskowski has promised a different Poland. But critics say his party is weak and ineffectual and that his record as mayor is mixed. . — AFP