Polish President Andrzej Duda's policies have raised hackles in the EU

Warsaw (AFP) - The future of Poland’s populist right-wing government hung in the balance Sunday as Poles voted in record numbers in round one of a tight presidential race that was delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The frontrunner is incumbent Andrzej Duda, 48, who is seen as a key European ally by US President Donald Trump but whose policies have raised hackles in the European Union.

“This is a decisive time. A lot will really depend on this decision,” anti-communist icon Lech Walesa said as he cast his vote in the northern port of Gdansk wearing a transparent plastic visor over his face.

Walesa, who was elected Poland’s first democratic president after communism’s demise three decades ago, has been a trenchant critic of the current government.

- Record turnout -

Opinion polls indicate that Duda, backed by the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party, will fall short of a majority and there will need to be a run-off on July 12.

The Polish election was delayed from May because of the coronavirus pandemic

Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, a liberal from the Civic Platform (PO) opposition party who has promised to heal ties with Brussels, is predicted to be his rival in the second round.

Turnout was at a record high by 5:00 pm with almost 48 percent having voted compared to about 34 percent by the same time in the last presidential election in 2015, the national election commission said.

The campaign has been dominated by concerns over democracy and bread and butter economic issues as Poland faces its first recession since the end of communism because of the pandemic fallout.

- ‘For democracy’ -

Voters in masks were seen waiting in long socially distanced queues at polling stations across the country.

“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 stronghold for the PiS, Andrzej Guzik said he would be voting for Duda because of his consistent leadership.

Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski is predicted to face Duda in the run-off

“Personally I only see Duda as president,” said Guzik, 52, an employee at the PGNIG state gas company.

Inside the polling stations, officials wore masks and transparent visors and voters had to carry their own pens to lessen the risk of contagion.

Signs on the ground indicated safe distances where voters could stand and hand sanitiser was provided.

- Trump’s blessing -

Poland’s government has implemented popular social welfare payments in recent years but has also endorsed polarising legislation, especially judicial reforms.

Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski is predicted to face Duda in the run-off

While the PiS insists the changes are needed to weed out judicial corruption, critics and the EU sees them as eroding judicial independence and democracy just three decades after Poland shed communism.

Trump has instead given Duda his blessing this week, inviting him to the White House on Wednesday as the first foreign leader to visit since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Originally scheduled for May, the ballot was postponed due to the pandemic and a new hybrid system of postal and conventional voting was in place on Sunday in a bid to stop the election from causing a spike in infections.

Official figures show more than 33,000 cases and more than 1,400 deaths in this EU country of 38 million people, although the real number is believed to be much higher.

During the campaign, Duda has echoed PiS attacks on LGBT+ rights and Western values.

Trzaskowski instead 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, although many see his PO party as weak and ineffectual.

Polling stations will close at 9:00 pm (1900 GMT), with an exit poll expected as soon as voting ends.