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Friday July 10th, 2020 8:31PM

A divided Poland holds presidential vote delayed by pandemic

By The Associated Press
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WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poles voted in a presidential election Sunday that was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic and was taking place amid deep cultural and political divisions in the European Union nation.

President Andrzej Duda, a 48-year-old conservative backed by the nationalist ruling Law and Justice party, was running against 10 other candidates as he sought a second 5-year term. Whether Duda wins or not will determine whether the ruling party keeps its near-monopoly on political power in Poland.

Turnout at 5 p.m. local time was 47.89% which the State Electoral Commission said was the highest for that time in Poland's 30 years of democracy. In many places there were lines during the day.

The strong political polarization seemed to mobilize many among almost 30 million eligible voters.

The highest regional turnout of 54.76% was in the capital, Warsaw, and in the two western cities of Poznan (53.21%) and Zielona Gora (53.04%).

Most recent polls showed that no single candidate was likely to reach the 50% required to avoid a runoff given the crowded field of candidates, all of whom are male. In that case, the two top vote-getters will face each other on July 12.

The vote had been scheduled for May 10 but was postponed in a chaotic political and legal battle as the ruling party pressed to hold it despite the pandemic.

Exit polls will be announced immediately after polling stations close Sunday at 9 p.m. (1900 GMT, 3 p.m. EDT). The final official results are expected by late Wednesday, after all votes sent from abroad are counted.

Polling ahead of Sunday’s vote suggested Duda was the front-runner but might not win the required majority needed to win outright. Polls also showed that he would have a more difficult time in a runoff given that many opposition votes would be expected to unite against him.

Duda’s strongest challenge comes from Warsaw mayor, Rafal Trzaskowski, also 48, who is backed by the centrist Civic Platform party. Trzaskowski entered the race late after the May election date was scrapped.

Duda’s once-strong support, bolstered by adulatory coverage in state media, began to slip once virus lockdown restrictions were lifted and other candidates could campaign.

Poland has not been as badly hit by the pandemic as many countries in Western Europe, and most people were voting in person, though required to wear masks and observe other hygiene rules. There was also a mail-in voting option, and thousands of voters in some southwestern regions with higher virus infection numbers were required to vote by mail.

As of Sunday, Poland had nearly 34,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among its 38 million people, with over 1,400 deaths.

Stanislaw Tasiemski, a 69-year-old office worker, joined many others voting early in Warsaw. He cast his ballot for Duda, saying he opposed political “experiments” in a time of crisis.

"In the face of what is happening, stability is needed,” he said.

Duda's campaign focused on defending traditional values in the mostly Catholic nation while promising to keep raising living standards to Western European levels. He took a position against same-sex marriage and adoption and denounced the LGBT rights movement as a dangerous “ideology.”

That kind of rhetoric — along with laws that have given the Law and Justice party much greater control over the justice system and the party's harnessing of public media to promote the government's image — have raised concerns among some that Poland is following Hungary in eroding democratic norms established after communism collapsed three decades ago.

On the campaign trail, Trzaskowski promised to keep the ruling party's popular social welfare spending programs while vowing to restore constitutional norms.

That message resonated with Iwona Goge, a 79-year-old who voted for Trzaskowski in Warsaw and was encouraged to see so many others voting.

“It's bad. Poland is terribly divided and people are getting discouraged,” she said.

Other presidential candidates include Szymon Holownia, a TV personality and journalist who had once studied to be a priest. Holownia is unaffiliated with any party and has generated some enthusiasm among those tired of years of bickering between Law and Justice and Civic Platform, the country's two main parties.

Also in the running are a left-wing politician who is Poland’s first openly gay presidential contender, Robert Biedron; the head of an agrarian party, Wladyslaw Kosiniak-Kamysz; and a lawmaker with the far-right Confederation party, Krzysztof Bosak.

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Rafal Niedzielski contributed to this report.

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Follow all of AP’s pandemic coverage at http://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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