WARSAW — Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, fell short of securing a majority of the vote Sunday in Europe’s first socially distanced election, exit polls showed, forcing a runoff vote in two weeks against the second-place finisher, Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski of Warsaw.
Poles turned out in droves, despite several obstacles. These included sweltering heat, lingering concerns about the spread of the coronavirus and long lines as polling stations gave each voter a zone of personal space three feet in all directions.
Both leading candidates acknowledged that they will be in a runoff, after exit polls showed Mr. Duda receiving about 41 percent of the vote and Mr. Trzaskowski about 30 percent; no official results will be released until Monday.
Nine other candidates representing a wide range of views, from the far right to the ultraliberal, were also on the ballot. Political analysts and public opinion polls predict that most of their support will go to Mr. Trzaskowski, making the next round of voting extremely close.
In the July 12 runoff, the choice will be more sharply drawn between Mr. Duda and Mr. Trzaskowski.
Mr. Trzaskowski promises to draw the country closer the European Union, protect the rights of the L.G.B.T. community, whose members are often targets of the government, and veto laws that he says pose a threat to Poland’s democratic institutions.
“It will be the choice between an open Poland and Poland looking for an enemy,” he told supporters on Sunday night. Mr. Trzaskowski reached out not only to those who do not like the country’s direction, but also to those who might have supported Law and Justice in the past, saying his goal was to unite the country.
Mr. Duda has attacked homosexuality as an ideology comparable to communism. His campaign has been was defined by singling out the L.G.B.T. community for the kind of vitriol that was directed at migrants five years ago, when immigration helped fuel the rise of populist leaders across the continent.
“I’d like to thank all my compatriots for the turnout, for the high participation in the elections,” Mr. Duda said after the polls closed. He said he looked forward to meeting Mr. Trzaskowski in the runoff and was confident in his vision for Poland.
“Family is the future, security is the future, work is the future, investment is the future, dignity is the future,” he said. “We don’t have a doubt that this is what Poland needs in the coming years.”
In many ways, the election was a referendum on the governing Law and Justice party, which swept to power in 2015 and set out an ambitious agenda to reshape the state. For opponents of the nationalist government, the party represents a fundamental threat to democracy and has set the country on a course already charted in Hungary, where single-party control has allowed a steady drift toward autocratic rule.
But even as old divisions defined much of the debate before the election, it played out against a very different backdrop, the coronavirus pandemic.
Voting, originally scheduled for May, was postponed and a raft of measures were put in place to ensure voters felt safe going to the polls.
Voters were told to take their own pens. Masks were required for anyone entering a polling station in Warsaw and other Polish cities. And doors remained open so people did not have to touch the handles.
Poland was one of the first nations to close its borders, and when it locked down in March, it did so completely. Military police were even dispatched to the streets to make sure people did not break the rules.
It was also one of the first nations in Europe to ease coronavirus restrictions; on May 20, the mandatory order to wear masks in public was lifted. Just about everything that was open before the pandemic has reopened, including gyms, restaurants and movie theaters.
With just 285 new Covid-19 cases reported on Friday, the reopening has not led to major spikes in new infections. So far, there have been about 34,000 confirmed cases and more than 1,400 total deaths — smaller figures, relative to Poland’s population, than most European countries.
The one restriction that remains is on large gatherings of more than 150 people.
And elections, by their nature, are large gatherings.
On Friday night in Warsaw’s Old Town Square, outside the Royal Castle that once housed Poland’s monarchs and was rebuilt brick by brick after its destruction in World War II, several hundred people gathered to hear Mr. Trzaskowski’s final campaign speech.
“If we lose it’s going to be dreadful,” said one supporter, Agata Rzeszewska. “Democracy is going to end.”
Magda Szczawińska worried that if the governing party lost, it might use the pandemic to challenge the results.
“I’m very much worried,” she said. She feared the government would declare a state of emergency and delay a runoff election to buy time if it looked as if it would lose.
“The pandemic is an element of the political game in Poland,” she said.
The election is widely viewed as one of the most important in the history of this young democracy, which held its first, partially free, elections in 1989.
Mr. Duda is not technically a member of the governing Law and Justice party, but has the support of the party and its founder and chairman, Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
In fact, the Polish president has had a hard time escaping from the shadow of Mr. Kaczynski, the most powerful politician in Poland and the architect of the government’s agenda.
Mr. Kaczynski was often frustrated by court rulings when his party led the country from 2005 to 2007. Since returning to power in 2015, he has eroded the independence of the judiciary, moving to undo what he sees as the mistakes of the early years of Polish democracy.
Legal experts from the European Commission have found that many changes Mr. Kaczynski has advocated pose a threat to judicial fairness and undermine democratic values.
The fight over the courts is just one of several pitched battles with the European Union. Mr. Kaczynski has often cast those battles as fights for Polish sovereignty.
“Poland is and should remain an island of freedom,” Mr. Kaczynski said at a meeting of the party’s youth convention on Wednesday, the same day Mr. Duda was visiting President Trump in Washington. “If today President Andrzej Duda is in the United States holding talks about Polish-American relations, including in the military sphere, he is fighting for freedom, Polish freedom.”
Polish voters overwhelmingly like being in the E.U., however, and Mr. Trzaskowski has made repairing that relationship a key part of his platform.
“It’s important that nobody separates us from Europe,” he said during a recent campaign appearance. “We will be a tough partner, but a partner who doesn’t insult anyone; we will be a state fighting for our interest; a state which will be a constructive partner. A state which will fight global warming, which will fight for jobs and for Poland being respected again in the E.U.”
Election officials in Poland said that the logistics of socially distanced voting were challenging but manageable.
The country’s Health Ministry issued detailed guidelines for all voting districts. Every station was required to provide disposable gloves, disinfectant liquid, medical-grade face masks and face shields.
A zone of personal space, roughly three feet in every direction, was required for each voter, and stations had to be aired before voting began and at least once every hour for 10 minutes.
The traditional green tablecloths were not to be used so surfaces could be easily cleaned.
“Surfaces such as door handles, ballot boxes, table tops, handles, light switches, etc. that may be touched by people inside the polling station will be cleaned with the disinfectant liquid before the commission starts work,” according to the guidelines. And then, they had to be wiped down once an hour and at least six times on Election Day.
Anatol Magdziarz contributed reporting.
Orignially published in NYT.