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Poland’s Pivotal Vote on Populist Makeover Is Too Close to Call

(C) Bloomberg. KRAKOW, POLAND – JULY 12: Polish President backed by the right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS), Andrzej Duda arrives to cast his ballot during Poland’s Presidential elections runoff on July 12, 2020 in Krakow, Poland. The latest polls suggest a close race between the ruling President backed by the conservative right-wing Law and Justice Party, Andrzej Duda and his opponent, Warsaw Mayor and Presidential candidate for the Civic Platform (PO), Rafal Trzaskowski. Experts predict an exact result on Monday as Polish society remains extremely divide on their choice. (Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

(Bloomberg) — Poland’s highly-charged presidential election is too close to call and a bitter battle that pitted a conservative incumbent against a pro-European alternative is bound to get more complicated.

An exit poll showed President Andrzej Duda with a razor-thin margin over his rival, Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski. Both men declared victory and the challenger’s campaign is talking of “irregularities” in voting and are planning protests. The highest turnout since the fall of communism shows that Poles are hugely invested in the vote.

Duda’s lead — 50.8% over 49.2% — is within the margin of error of the exit poll, and the survey by the IPSOS pollster doesn’t take into account nearly half a million votes by Poles living abroad that may favor the challenger. Official results may be published on Monday.

Five years into a nationalist makeover, Duda and his allied Law & Justice party have transformed Poland from a nation hailed as a model of post-communist change to one battling against the European Union’s values. With another term, the government could erode the rule of law so much that Poland’s remains out of the EU mainstream for years.

Duda thanked voters for their support and asked Trzaskowski for a late-night meeting, seeking to “shake hands and end this campaign.” His rival said that when all ballots are counted, he’ll be declared the winner.

“This is heading for the courts due to the scale of irregularities and the small margin between the candidates,” said Anna Materska-Sosnowska, a political scientist at Warsaw University. “Regardless of the final result, we have a completely split country and both candidates realize this.”

Financial markets will be in limbo until the winner is decided, although no bigger reaction is expected on Monday, Credit Agricole (OTC:CRARY) Bank Polska SA chief economist Jakub Borowski said by phone. The zloty has lost 0.4% against the euro this month, lagging most of its emerging-market peers.

Media ‘Imbalance’

Unable to run again, Duda would have little motivation to seek to compromise despite appearing to win by such a tiny margin. After it lost control over parliament’s upper house in last October’s general election, Law & Justice didn’t swerve from its path.

In fact, Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro said on Sunday that the ruling coalition must do more to eliminate the “imbalance” in the country’s media landscape.

During the campaign, the incumbent criticized foreign-owned media for critical coverage. Meanwhile, international election monitors blasted pro-Duda public television for failing in its “legal duty to provide balanced and impartial coverage,” while playing on anti-Semitic themes.

“We must look after the basic mechanisms of democracy, including fair media coverage of what’s happening,” Ziobro told public television. “We can’t close our eyes to what happened. We’re facing a serious debate.”

State Capture

A victory by Trzaskowski, on the other hand, would send a message to Brussels and Berlin that Poland still has one foot in the EU mainstream. That would be a welcome development for EU leaders who — while occupied by the coronavirus crisis and Brexit — have struggled with nationalist governments rejecting its liberal and multicultural agenda.

A Duda victory “would lead to further deterioration of the rule of law in Poland and pave the way for a complete state capture” by Law & Justice, said Piotr Buras and Pawel Zerka of the European Council on Foreign Relations. A second-term would allow the government to “dismantle the country’s already damaged system of checks and balances – in a similar way that already happened in Hungary.”

Given the massive advantage in public media, front-runner Duda wasn’t able to score a knock-out at the ballot box, while Trzaskowski gained about 4 million voters compared with the first round two weeks ago.

“This is just the beginning — we’ve woken up and started talking about the Poland we want,” Trzaskowski told supporters on Sunday. “Their side had everything: the entire state apparatus, propaganda, a ton of money and manipulation, we just had civic society and common sense.”

(C)2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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