Poland's President Andrzej Duda comes top in first round of presidential election, partial results show, but falls short of overall majority needed to avoid what looks set to be a tight run-off vote against Rafal Trzaskowski on July 12.

President Andrzej Duda addressees supporters shortly after voting ended in the presidential election in Lowicz, Poland on June 28, 2020.
President Andrzej Duda addressees supporters shortly after voting ended in the presidential election in Lowicz, Poland on June 28, 2020. (AP)

Polish President Andrzej Duda is set for a tight run-off against Warsaw's liberal mayor next month after an inconclusive first-round vote, leaving the fate of the populist right-wing government in the balance.

Duda, who is backed by the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party, is expected to come out on top in the first-round vote with 41.8 percent, according to an exit poll by Ipsos.

Rafal Trzaskowski, who has promised to heal rifts with the European Union, is set to come second with 30.4 percent but could receive endorsements from other opposition candidates ahead of the July 12 second round of voting.

"I will be the candidate of change!" Trzaskowski said at an election night party in a redeveloped former power station in Warsaw.

Trzaskowski, who is also 48 and is from the Civic Platform (PO) party, appealed to voters "who want an open Poland, not a Poland always looking for enemies".

Poland's state electoral commission has said it would release the final official results by Wednesday evening.

Political shift?

Whether Duda ultimately wins a second five-year term in two weeks’ time will determine whether the ruling nationalist party that backs him, Law and Justice, keeps its near-monopoly on political power in Poland.

The party has been in conflict with the European Union over laws that have given it control over top courts and key judicial bodies, something the 27-nation bloc has denounced as an erosion of democratic European values.

Opinion surveys conducted last week indicated that Duda could have a more difficult time in a runoff given that many opposition voters would be expected to unite against him.

The candidate with the third most votes according to the exit poll was Szymon Holownia, a TV personality and journalist who had once studied to be a priest. 

He was projected by the Ipsos poll to have 13.3 percent. Holownia is unaffiliated with any party and generated enthusiasm among some Poles tired of years of bickering between Law and Justice and Civic Platform, the country’s two main parties.

Most of his supporters have said in surveys they would back Trzaskowski in a runoff.

A far-right candidate, Krzysztof Bosak, was projected by the exit poll to win 7.4 percent of the vote, and his voters would also be up for grabs in the runoff.

READ MORE: US, EU keep close eye as Poland heads to the polls

"For democracy"

Voters in masks were seen waiting in long socially distanced queues at polling stations across the country.

"I voted for Trzaskowski of course! Why? For democracy, the judiciary and respect for minorities," said Joanna Ugniewska, 66, after casting her ballot at a polling station in a school in Warsaw city centre.

But in Tarnow in southern Poland, a stronghold for the PiS, Andrzej Guzik said he would be voting for Duda because of his consistent leadership.

"Personally I only see Duda as president," said Guzik, 52, an employee at the PGNIG state gas company.

Inside the polling stations, officials wore masks and transparent visors and voters had to carry their own pens to lessen the risk of contagion.

Signs on the ground indicated safe distances where voters could stand and hand sanitiser was provided.

Elections delayed by virus

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.

In April, Duda had very high support and was expected then to win in a single round. He was helped by adulatory coverage in state media and the inability of other candidates to campaign.

But as restrictions eased, Trzaskowski replaced an earlier candidate fielded by his Civic Platform party who had dismal poll numbers, adding a new dynamic and some suspense into the race.

Poland hasn't been as badly hit by the pandemic as many countries in Western Europe, and most people voted in person, wearing masks. 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.

Seeking to retain traditional values

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 the 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.

READ MORE: Is Trump piggybacking on Poland to reshuffle Europe's power players?

Source: TRTWorld and agencies