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Poland’s momentous presidential runoff too close to call

WARSAW, Poland — An exit poll for Poland’s presidential runoff Sunday showed a race that is too close to call between the conservative, populist incumbent and the liberal, pro-Europe mayor of Warsaw — a battle that reflected the deep divisions in this European Union nation.

The exit poll by the Ipsos institute showed President Andrzej Duda with 50.4% of the vote and challenger Rafal Trzaskowski with 49.6%. But the poll has a margin of error of plus or minus two percentage points, meaning it’s not yet possible to say with certainty which 48-year-old candidate won.

Long lines were still visible outside some polling stations Sunday night, forcing 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.

Another exit poll based on more data will be published later Sunday with a tighter margin of error. Official results are not expected until Monday or Tuesday.

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.

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 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. If confirmed by election officials, the high turnout is a sign of the great importance that many Poles placed on Sunday’s vote.

Duda thanked his supporters and called the high turnout “a beautiful testimony of our democracy.”

To those supporting Trzaskowski, it was a possibly a last chance to halt an erosion of the rule of law under Duda and the ruling party, both in power since 2015.

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 does not reflect the votes cast from abroad, and a majority of them were expected to go to Trzaskowski.

“All the votes just need to be counted which, in truth, will make this evening a nerve-wracking one for everyone in Poland,” Trzaskowski said. “But I am absolutely convinced when we count each vote, we will be victorious and we will definitely win.”

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 amid a dozen candidates, Duda got 43.5% support and Trzaskowski 30.5%.

Lines were seen all day Sunday at voting stations across the country, especially in seaside resorts where many Poles were vacationing.

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.

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.

Duda has called LGBT rights an “ideology” worse than communism, and his campaign claimed that Trzaskowski would take welfare money from Polish families and give it to foreign Jews — something Trzaskowski never said he would do.

Trzaskowski vowed to close the social rifts in Poland but keep the benefits payments coming. 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 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. Election officials had to wear masks and sit wide apart from each other., while ballot boxes were regularly disinfected and the polling stations were well-ventilated.