Poland’s incumbent President Andrzej Duda, a social conservative aligned with the ruling populist Law and Justice Party (PiS), secured a second term in office Sunday with a narrow margin of victory after an ill-tempered, mudslinging presidential race.
His challenger’s supporters said they plan to contest the election result in Poland’s courts, a legal tussle likely to worsen the bitter polarization of the country.
After a tight runoff race, Duda won 51.21% of the vote, while his opponent, Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski of the liberal Civic Platform Party, took 48.79%. The preliminary result was declared with 99.97% of polling stations reporting. The electoral commission said the votes yet to be counted will not materially affect Duda’s overall win.
The incumbent’s secured reelection was the slimmest victory margin for any presidential victor since the end of communism in 1989.
“I think there will certainly be electoral protests, and I think the whole issue will end up in the Supreme Court,” political scientist Anna Materska-Sosnowska told the Agence France-Presse news agency.
Duda’s political opponents claimed voting “irregularities” in polling stations and said many Poles living overseas did not receive ballots in time to vote.Polish President and presidential candidate of the Law and Justice (PiS) party Andrzej Duda holds up a bouquet after the announcement of the first exit poll results on the second round of the presidential election in Pultusk, Poland, July 12, 2020.Despite the closeness of the race, Duda’s supporters said he won a clear mandate since the turnout was high — just under 70%. They said his win opens the path for the PiS to continue with contentious reforms of the judiciary and media regulations, which have raised the ire of the European Union. If Trzaskowski had won, he would have been able to block some legislation by using a presidential veto.
“Winning the presidential election with 70% of turnout is excellent news,” Duda said at an event in Pultusk on Sunday. “I’m very moved.”  
Trzaskowski said, “We’ve already won, regardless of the final result. We have managed to wake up. We have managed to create new hope.”
Pollsters had said the race was too close to call in the days leading up to voting. The election campaign centered on Duda’s promise to ban LGBTQ education in schools and his refusal to endorse same-sex marriage or gay adoption.
The incumbent president enjoyed a commanding lead in opinion polls before the coronavirus pandemic impacted Poland. Pollsters say Duda would have likely won more votes if the election, which was delayed because of the pandemic, had taken place in May as scheduled.  
Oxford University-educated Trzaskowski, the candidate of the Civic Coalition (KO) alliance, the country’s main centrist opposition bloc, proved to be an energetic campaigner and hoped to pull off a win by uniting all opposition parties behind his challenge.
The race became so toxic that neither candidate would agree to debate each other in person on the eve of the vote, choosing instead to hold one-man “debates” on separate television channels at the same time.
Poles were not the only ones watching the election closely. This is the first nationwide poll in Europe, aside from France’s recent municipal elections, since the coronavirus arrived in Europe, and is being seen by some as a possible bellwether on the strength of social conservatism in Europe.Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, presidential candidate of the main opposition Civic Platform (PO) party, reacts after the announcement of the first exit poll results on the second round of the presidential election in Warsaw, Poland, July 12, 2020.Duda’s campaign matched the style of electioneering and political agenda pursued by Hungary’s firebrand anti-migrant populist Viktor Orbаn, one combining social conservatism emphasizing “family values” and criticism of the European Union.
Like Orbаn, Duda and the PiS claim national sovereignty is being undermined by globalization, and nation states and their traditional cultures and lifestyles are being weakened by bankers and urban elites.  
His victory will hearten fellow populists in neighboring European countries where there is a strong electorate for social conservatism and generous state handouts.
Like Orbаn, Duda and the PiS have been accused by domestic critics and Brussels of eroding democratic checks and balances, of seeking to curb judicial independence and of expanding state control over the media and civil society.
But as in Hungary, generous welfare schemes have been credited with recent election wins by conservative nationalists. Analysts deem social spending as a big factor in Duda’s reelection.  
The campaign exposed clear political and cultural fault-lines in Poland. The country’s weekly Polityka magazine said the contest came down to the “young against old, cities against countryside.” Duda’s voters are older and concentrated in rural areas in the strongly Catholic east of the country. Younger voters in the west and in larger towns and cities voted largely for his challenger.
Some commentators expect the win will trigger moves by the PiS to limit foreign ownership of Poland’s private media outlets. During the campaign, Duda and his backers chafed at criticism of the PiS by foreign-owned media companies, especially German ones. Railing against “foreign interference” at one rally, he accused Germany of trying to choose Poland’s president.
Duda focused his attacks on Fakt, a Polish tabloid partly owned by the German Axel Springer publishing group. His critics say foreign-owned media is a needed counterweight to state-owned Polish television, which they say acts as a mouthpiece for the PiS.

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