Poles stand in line for high-stakes presidential vote

Anna Koper and Alicja Ptak
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Poles stand in line for high-stakes presidential vote

People queue outside a polling station during the presidential election in Warsaw

By Anna Koper and Alicja Ptak

WARSAW (Reuters) - Poles stood in long lines to vote on Sunday in a closely-fought presidential election, expected to see record turnout, that could reshape Poland's tense relationship with the European Union and the ruling nationalists' socially conservative agenda.

The ballot takes place seven weeks later than originally scheduled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, although Poland has had relatively few cases and deaths.

Incumbent Andrzej Duda's re-election is crucial if the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) is to continue an agenda that includes judicial reforms that have put Poland on a collision course with the European Union.

Voting stations close at 9.00 p.m. (1900 GMT), when exit polls will be published. If no candidate wins more than 50%, the two with the biggest share will compete in a second round on July 12.

Poland's electoral commission apologised on Sunday for the restrictions at polling stations to contain the novel coronavirus. They include wearing masks, maintaining social distance and asking voters to bring their own pens.

"This election is more important because it is taking place during a pandemic," Tadeusz Kolacin, 90, a retired lecturer, told Reuters after he cast his ballot. "People are afraid to go out and vote, to run into each and talk about these elections."

Poland's electoral commission said, however, it expected record turnout.

Lines snaked around street corners on a particularly hot day, with turnout of more than 24% by midday compared with around 14.6% at the same stage in the 2015 presidential election.

Many Poles abroad seeking a postal ballot said they had not received their voting slips in time to vote.

"It is a shame that as a result of the pandemic...not everyone got their (election) package on time," Poland's Ambassador to Britain Arkady Rzegocki said in a tweet.


FAMILY VALUES VERSUS PROGRESSIVE ALTERNATIVE

Duda, 48, has vowed to maintain the PiS' economic programmes, which include generous social spending and a pledge to protect family values in the predominantly Catholic country.

"We don't see the same standard of living as in western Europe and this is what I would like to achieve," Duda said in the southwestern town of Rybnik on Friday during one of his last campaign stops before the election.

His main challenger, centrist Warsaw mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, also 48, seeks to provide a progressive alternative and to end Poland's isolation in the EU after five years of conflict between the government and Brussels.

Since the PiS came to power in 2015, the European Commission, the EU executive, has launched an unprecedented legal action against Warsaw following criticism Poland is subverting democratic norms by politicising its courts.

If Duda fails to secure a second five-year mandate, his successor could veto laws put backed by PiS or refuse to nominate judges picked by the party's allies.

This could fuel tensions within the PiS' fragile parliamentary coalition, force Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki's government to rule as a minority cabinet and possibly trigger an early national election.


(Additional reporting by Jaroslaw Gawlowski; Writing by Joanna Plucinska; Editing by Justyna Pawlak, David Holmes and Barbara Lewis)