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Poland presidential election: Is Warsaw's pro-EU mayor a real threat to incumbent Andrzej Duda?

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Poland President Andrzej Duda and opposition challenger Rafal Trzaskowski, who is Warsaw's mayor
Poland President Andrzej Duda and opposition challenger Rafal Trzaskowski, who is Warsaw's mayor   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski
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Incumbent Andrzej Duda is widely expected to win the first round of Poland's presidential election on Sunday.

But he faces a "highly competitive" second round due to the COVID-19 pandemic, experts have told Euronews.

The ballot was initially scheduled to be held in early May but was cancelled with just four days to go after the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) dropped an attempt to push through a controversial all-postal vote designed to allay fears over the novel coronavirus. The election was subsequently postponed to June 28.

Duda, an independent allied with the conservative PiS party, has since seen his lead in the polls shrink.

Poll aggregator Europe Elects currently predicts he will get 41 per cent of the vote, not enough to avoid a run-off.

Duda, or any other candidate, would need a vote share of 51 per cent or more to win outright and avoid a second round.

Duda's main competitor is Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski from the main opposition centre-right Civic Platform (PO) party, who was not even declared to run in the May 10 ballot but has since surged in the polls.

He is expected to get 30 per cent of the vote on Sunday, which would see him face off Duda in a second-round scheduled for July 12.

Petr David Josek/AP Photo
A resident, wearing face mask and protective gloves, casts a vote during presidential election in Warsaw, Poland, Sunday, June 28, 2020.Petr David Josek/AP Photo

Can Trzaskowski truly challenge Duda?

"Yes, he can," Piotr Buras from the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank told Euronews. "A few recent polls suggest that this is possible even if this is going to be a very tight race.

"This itself marks a substantial change as compared to the situation even a one-two months ago when Duda was set to win the vote."

Andrius Tursa, Central & Eastern Europe Advisor at the Teneo Intelligence political risk consultancy, described the potential run-off between the two men as "highly competitive".

"Most polls show that the incumbent’s edge over his key opponents – regardless of whether it is Trzaskowski or Holownia – would disappear in the second round," he added in a recent note.

Trzaskowski's campaign has centred around the rule of law and European values with "Enough is enough!" as its slogan while Duda has emphasised his strong track record with the PiS which he argues would ensure the country's stability and prosperity and pledged big infrastructural projects.

Poland's right-wing government has repeatedly drawn the ire of the European Commission since 2015 for pushing through legislation that the EU says undermines judicial independence and rule of law.

Both candidates are also facing criticism for, among others, being part of the political establishment.

"Duda is being strongly criticised for polarising society (anti-LGBT campaign) and disregarding the rights of a part of the Polish citizens. He is mocked for being totally dependent on the [PiS] party leader [Jarowlaw] Kaczynski, a muppet without any real political agenda," Buras said.

"Trzaskowski is (for PiS) a promoter of leftist ideologies which endanger the Polish culture and tradition. As mayor of Warsaw, he is attacked for alleged or real failures in this role. Other candidates (most notably the independent candidate Szymon Holownia) maintain that Trzaskowski – as the candidate of the Civic Platform – is part of the duopoly (PiS vs Civic Platform) which has had a grip on the Polish politics for years," he added.

What victory for Duda or Trzaskowsk will mean

A Duda win "would help PiS consolidate its grip on the state and entrench itself in its structures," Buras went on, and grant the party a "relatively comfortable situation until 2023" when the next parliamentary elections are set to be held.

A loss, however, "would significantly weaken the government’s ability to pass legislation and could heighten the risk of political instability," Tursa said.

"The presidential powers in Poland are not extensive, but the head of state holds a right to veto any legislation adopted by parliament. While the president’s veto can be overturned by a three-fifths majority in the lower house of parliament (Sejm), the ruling United Right coalition government holds only a five-seat majority in the 460-seat Sejm," he explained.

The analyst flagged that turnout will be an important indicator, especially as COVID-19-related restrictions may limit the ability of Polish expats to vote. Some municipalities may also be ordered to vote by post only depending on the epidemiological situation.