WARSAW (Reuters) - Poles vote on Sunday in a closely-fought presidential election critical to the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) government’s hopes of implementing its conservative agenda, including judicial reforms the European Union says undermine democracy.
The vote had been due to take place on May 10 but was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Poles will now have the option of voting by postal ballot in Sunday’s hastily rescheduled election to avoid having to visit polling stations.
With the COVID-19 death toll in Poland much lower than in most of western Europe - around 1,400 people have died, in a population of 38 million - the campaign has focused largely on PiS’s socially conservative agenda, including its opposition to gay rights.
PiS has painted its candidate, the incumbent Andrzej Duda, 48, as a guardian of the party’s generous welfare programmes and its traditional family values, which it says are under attack from the liberal West.
“As long as I live, I promise to defend our family, our Polish family model. I will not allow any experiments to take place here, particularly those involving children,” Duda told supporters in his conservative heartland in southern Poland.
PiS opposes allowing gay couples to adopt children or to marry.
Opinion polls put President Duda on around 40% and his nearest rival, Warsaw mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, 48, on just under 30%. But Duda’s lead has been narrowing and he needs to win more than 50% to avoid a second round on July 12.
Some polls show Trzaskowski, candidate of the centrist Civic Platform (PO), winning the runoff.
A victory for Trzaskowski would put Poland on a path towards repairing its tense relations with the EU, which has launched unprecedented rule of law proceedings against the country.
It would also raise questions over the nationalists’ fragile parliamentary coalition.
Under Polish law, the president can veto legislation and PiS does not have enough seats in the legislature to overturn it.
In Poland’s first election allowing postal votes on a large scale, some Poles abroad said they were having trouble registering or had not received ballot papers in the post.
Iwona Bereza, 46, who has lived in Britain for eight years at the same address, said the new system rejected her postal ballot application, citing problems with her residence. The foreign ministry said it was working on fixing glitches.
Trzaskowski has galvanised many centrist voters with a promise to thwart PiS’s ambitions which he says erode democracy.
However, he has been careful to reassure voters he supports the generous social spending policies many say allowed PiS last year to win a second four-year parliamentary term.
“Some in our society had the impression they had been left on the sidelines... Our political opponents made a good diagnosis, that nobody should be left behind,” Trzaskowski told supporters in May.
Duda is keen to contrast the rising wages Poland has seen during his tenure with what he says were tougher times under the previous pro-business PO government.
“For the Polish economy they were worse than coronavirus,” he told supporters on Sunday.
Eleven candidates in total are running for president.
Editing by Gareth Jones
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