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Poland presidential election: Pro-EU hopeful Rafal Trzaskowski neck and neck with incumbent Duda

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Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, right, and Poland's President Andrzej Duda.
Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, right, and Poland's President Andrzej Duda.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski
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With just three days to go, the race to be Poland's next president is too close to call.

Latest polling by Kantar currently credits the Warsaw mayor and opposition candidate Rafal Trzaskowski with 50.6 per cent of the vote.

Incumbent president Andrzej Duda, an independent aligned with the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party is seen gathering 49.4 per cent of the vote.

'Impossible to predict'

Duda, 48, was widely expected to win the election before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Europe.

The economic impact of lockdown and a controversial attempt to push ahead with an election in May significantly narrowed his lead.

The election was eventually postponed until Sunday, June 28. That saw Duda, with around 43.5 per cent of the vote, and Trzaskowski, on 30.5 per cent, emerge as the most popular candidates and set up a second-round run-off on Sunday, July 12.

Trzaskowski, from the main opposition centre-right Civic Platform (PO) party, only announced his candidacy in mid-May — after the ballot was initially scheduled to be held. He quickly surged in the polls and deprived Duda of an outright victory in the first round, achieved when a candidate gets more than 50 per cent of the vote share.

During the subsequent two weeks of campaigning, Trzaskowski, also 48, continued to eat away at Duda's lead and now "the race is so close that it’s impossible to predict," Pawel Zerka, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) think tank told Euronews.

Growing discontent

A narrow victory for either candidate is likely to further underline the polarisation of Polish society and could fuel growing discontent with the political establishment.

"If the first results show Trzaskowski winning, I somehow find it too hard to imagine that the ruling Law and Justice coalition could simply let the power slip out of their hands," Zerka said.

"Their control over the political institutions (and the public media) in Poland is already so vast, and their determination so strong, that they might find ways to shift the result to their advantage; they might even do so while maintaining all the appearances of legality," he added.

However, if Duda wins by a whisker, it's possible that "a large part of the society will conclude that this has been a stolen election," Zerka stressed.

"There’s a lot of hype among the opposition. For the past five years, they haven’t been that close to defeating Law and Justice in crucial elections. There has never been a level playing field during this campaign, as the public media have been glorifying Duda and demeaning Trzaskowski all the time. But if Trzaskowski loses, many people might think that, on top of that, there must have been some dirty tricks that allowed Duda to win," he went on.

One of the major concerns is about the postal vote. Duda and PiS initially hoped to maintain the May 10 ballot through an all-postal system which was decried by the opposition and rights groups as illegal and potentially open to manipulation because of a lack of infrastructure.

Hundreds of thousands of Polish expatriates will, however, be allowed to post their ballot for Sunday's second round.

A deeply 'polarised' society

Either way the wind blows, "we will see an even more polarised society than it already is today," Zerka said.

For PiS, the stakes are high because the election could either weaken it significantly or leave it clear to carry out its agenda more-or-less unencumbered until at least 2023 when parliamentary elections are to be held.

The right-wing party is credited with introducing welfare programmes that lifted many Poles out of poverty but it has also drawn the ire of the EU Commission and the rights groups for controversial reforms to the justice systems and its hostile rhetoric against the LGBTQ+ community.

Meanwhile, Trzaskoswki has said he wants to heal the rift with the EU and voiced support for LGBT and abortion rights. He has also pledged to maintain welfare programmes.

Poland's presidents have few legislative powers but they have the right to veto any law passed by parliament although the veto can be overturned by a three-fifths majority in the lower house.

PiS's majority has dwindled to just five seats, so if Duda loses the election, it leaves it more vulnerable to vetoes and defections. If he wins, PiS "will get a freeway to complete the process of state capture," Zerka said.