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Conservative Polish president wins 2nd term after tight race

Sunday’s vote was originally planned for May, but was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Image: Polish President backed by the right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS), Andrzej Duda and his wife, Agata Kornhauser Duda celebrate with supporters the following initial election results during Polands Presidential elections runoff
Polish President Andrzej Duda and his wife, Agata Kornhauser Duda, celebrate with supporters following initial election results in Pultusk, Poland on Sunday. Maja Hitij / Getty Images

WARSAW, Poland — Polish President Andrzej Duda, a conservative who ran a campaign with homophobic and anti-Semitic overtones, narrowly won a second five-year term in a bitterly fought weekend election, defeating the liberal Warsaw mayor, according to a near-complete count of votes.

Duda’s supporters celebrated what they saw as a clear mandate from voters for him and the right-wing ruling party that backs him, Law and Justice, to continue on a path that has reduced poverty but raised concerns that democracy is under threat.

Critics and human rights groups expressed concerns that Duda’s victory would boost illiberal tendencies not only at home but also within the European Union, which has struggled to halt an erosion of rule of law in Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Orban on Monday posted a picture of himself on Facebook shaking hands with Duda in the Hungarian parliament with “Bravo!” and graphics of a hand showing a “V” for victory and a Polish flag.

Zselyke Csaky, an expert on central Europe with the human rights group Freedom House, said Duda’s victory gives the party “essentially free rein” until parliamentary elections in 2023 “to do away with limits on its power and work towards destroying Poland’s independent institutions, such as the judiciary or the media.”

Incumbent President Andrzej Duda and first lady Agata Kornhauser-Duda cast their ballots at a polling station in their hometown of Krakow, Poland on Sunday. AP

The state electoral commission said Duda had 51.21 percent of the vote based on a count of votes from 99.97 percent of districts. His opponent, Rafal Trzaskowski, trailed with 48.79 percent of the vote.

Final results, expected later Monday, could vary slightly, but Duda’s lead appeared unassailable.

The very close race reflected the deep cultural divisions in this European Union nation.

It followed a bitter campaign dominated by issues of culture in which the government, state media and the influential Roman Catholic Church all mobilized in support of Duda, a social conservative, and sought to stoke fears of Jews, LGBT people and Germans.

Duda also got an apparent endorsement from President Donald Trump with a last-minute White House invitation in late June. Trump praised Duda, saying: “He’s doing a terrific job. The people of Poland think the world of him.”

Duda’s campaign focused on defending traditional family values in the predominantly Catholic nation of 38 million people, and on preserving social spending policies.

The party’s policies include hugely popular monthly cash bonuses of 500 zlotys ($125) per child to all families irrespective of income. They have helped alleviate povertyin rural regions, and given all families more money to spend.

Duda and the party, both in power since 2015, also solidified support among older Poles by lowering the retirement age and introducing a yearly cash bonus called a “13th pension.”

Many credit Law and Justice for making good on promises to reduce the economic inequality that came with the country’s transition from communism to a market economy three decades ago. There is a strong sense among them that the economic help is restoring a sense of dignity to their lives after many decades of hardship caused by war, communism and the economic dislocations of capitalism.

The party has also stoked conflict with the E.U. with laws that have given it vast new powers over the top courts and judicial bodies. Officials in Brussels have repeatedly expressed concerns over the rule of law in both Poland and Hungary, which were for many years hailed as the most successful new democracies to emerge from behind the Iron Curtain.

Sunday’s vote was originally planned for May, but was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. Turnout was very high at 68.1 percent, close to a record set in 1995, in a sign of the huge stakes for Poles on both sides of the divide.