Poland votes in a knife-edge presidential election between populist incumbent Andrzej Duda who is closely allied with US President Donald Trump and a europhile liberal Rafal Trzaskowski who wants to restore ties with Brussels.

A woman holds a banner as people gather in support of the mayor of Warsaw and the presidential candidate of the main Polish opposition centre-right Civic Platform (PO) party Rafal Trzaskowski during his election meeting in Ciechanow, Poland on July 9, 2020.
A woman holds a banner as people gather in support of the mayor of Warsaw and the presidential candidate of the main Polish opposition centre-right Civic Platform (PO) party Rafal Trzaskowski during his election meeting in Ciechanow, Poland on July 9, 2020. (Reuters)

Voting has begun in Poland's knife-edge presidential election that may shape the country's future relations with the European Union, which have been frayed by the bloc's concerns over the rule of law.

One favours Washington, the other Brussels and they are differing on a controversial reform of the judiciary: the two candidates in Sunday's election are at polar opposites on a number of key issues.

President Andrzej Duda, who is supported by the governing right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, is being challenged by Rafal Trzaskowski from the Civic Platform (PO) opposition party in the run-off vote.

Here are some of the main differences between the two 48-year-olds on foreign policy, security and the constitution – the core presidential powers.

Foreign policy

During his five-year term, Duda has favoured relations with the United States and in particular with President Donald Trump above ties with the European Union.

Duda has said the relationship with Washington is "the most important" for his country and has called the EU, which Poland joined in 2004, "an imaginary community from which we have little to gain".

Four days before the first round of the election, Duda visited Washington – the first foreign leader to do so since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump praised him for doing "an incredible job".

Trzaskowski is known instead as a europhile who has worked in Brussels and previously served as Europe minister.

He has criticised the "destruction" of relations with Brussels during Duda's presidency and has promised to "restore Poland's position within the EU".

Asked which foreign capital he would visit first if elected president, he has said he would first invite the presidents of France and Germany to Poland.

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

Security

Poland has prioritised arms purchases from the United States throughout Duda's presidency, buying F-35 fighter jets, Patriot missiles and Black Hawk helicopters.

Warsaw also cancelled a contract with Airbus Helicopters, which damaged relations with France.

Trzaskowski has said the modernisation of Poland's armed forces has been "frozen" under Duda, and is critical of what he calls "purges" in the army.

He has promised a "national security audit".

Both candidates support the presence of US and NATO troops in Poland, seen as a bulwark against Russia.

They have both also promised to raise defence spending to 2.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2030 – above the 2.0 percent minimum asked for by NATO.

Both are also strongly in favour of European sanctions on Russia following its annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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

Constitution

The reforms of Poland's judicial system supported by Duda and the governing party have been heavily criticised by the opposition and the EU, which says they violate both the constitution and European standards.

European Commission Vice President Vera Jourova earlier this year called them a "demolition".

Since 2017, Brussels has launched several infraction procedures over the reforms, which Duda says are vital for combating corruption and the influence of former communist officials in Poland's justice system.

Trzaskowski has criticised the "erosion of the state, the dismantling of public institutions and the trampling of the constitution" under Duda.

He has said he will abide by rulings from the European Court of Justice against the reforms.

During the campaign, Duda has also used anti-gay rhetoric to present himself as a defender of traditional Catholic family values, comparing "LGBT ideology" to a new form of communist indoctrination.

His rival has spoken out in favour of gay rights during his time as Warsaw mayor and says he would favour recognising same-sex civil partnerships although, like Duda, is against adoption by same-sex couples.

Tough contest

Polls opened at 0500 GMT and will close at 1900 GMT, with an exit poll scheduled shortly after that and the first official results only expected on Monday morning.

Experts are warning that Sunday's result could be so close that legal challenges and protests will ensue.

In the first round on June 28, Duda came first with 43.5 percent and Trzaskowski second with 30.4 percent.

But Trzaskowski will be hoping to sweep up votes from Poles who supported other opposition candidates.

Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, said he has had to mobilise very di sparate parts of the electorate against Duda and the incumbent would therefore likely win, though by a narrow margin.

"Trzaskowski proved an able and eloquent campaigner, but two weeks is a short time to bridge Duda's lead," it said, pointing to a "lack of clear support" for him from opposition candidates who lost in the first round.

Source: AFP