Poland faces momentous choice in tight presidential runoff

A man pushes a pram past campaign posters of Warsaw Mayor and candidate in Poland's presidential election, Rafal Trzaskowski (L) and of President Andrzej Duda (R) on July 9, 2020 in Raciaz, Poland, ahead of the July 12, 2020 presidential election. (AFP)
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Updated 11 July 2020

Poland faces momentous choice in tight presidential runoff

  • If Duda wins, he and the right-wing Law and Justice party that backs him will maintain a hold on almost all key instruments of power in the country
  • A victory for Trzaskowski, who belongs to the main opposition party, Civic Platform, would give him veto power over the laws passed by the ruling party

WARSAW, Poland: Voters in Poland on Sunday will decide a tight runoff election between populist incumbent President Andrzej Duda and his liberal pro-European Union challenger, Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski.
Recent opinion polls show a race so close that it could hinge on a narrow margin of voters, which added urgency to the final days of campaigning in the central European Union nation of 38 million people.
If Duda wins, he and the right-wing Law and Justice party that backs him will maintain a hold on almost all key instruments of power in the country, possibly until the next parliamentary elections scheduled for 2023.
The party’s welfare policies have helped reduce income inequality, creating reservoirs of trust and admiration, especially in rural areas where the party’s attachment to Roman Catholic traditions also go far.
But Law and Justice has exacerbated divisions in society with rhetoric marginalizing liberal elites, the LGBT community and other minority groups. It has also drawn criticism from some EU leaders, primarily because of laws giving the party new powers over Poland’s justice system.
A victory for Trzaskowski, who belongs to the main opposition party, Civic Platform, would give him veto power over the laws passed by the ruling party.
Since the Polish president represents the county abroad, Trzaskowski would bring in a more pro-European and conciliatory side of Poland to European forums.
“If Trzaskowski wins, it will be a clear sign that the society has had enough and wants a kind of politics where compromise is a value,” said Wojciech Przybylski, editor in chief of Visegrad Insight, a policy journal focused on Central Europe.
As he seeks a second five-year term, Duda got a campaign boost from his patron, the powerful ruling party leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and from Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.
Duda traveled across Poland meeting people, visiting open-air markets and vowing to protect the government’s signature spending policies. He was especially well received in farming regions and small towns, where government-paid bonuses have helped alleviate poverty and have given families with children more money to spend.
“This election will decide Poland’s development in the future, whether it will continue on the path to development,” Duda said at a rally in Starachowice, an industrial town of 50,000 in central Poland.
Duda suggests Trzaskowski would cut the popular welfare spending programs — but Trzaskowski has vowed to preserve them, acknowledging the “mistake” his pro-business party made in not introducing such help when it held power before.
Ryszard Sadowski, a 72-year-old who turned out to cheer Duda, praised him as a “reliable” man who kept his promises to help improve the lives of regular people. The retired biology and gym teacher said he benefited from a new yearly cash bonus for senior citizens called a “13th” monthly pension, and others in his family have received payments for children.
“From the moment when the money started coming to the families, suddenly everyone is happy,” Sadowski said.
Duda and Trzaskowski, both 48, eliminated nine other candidates in the first round on June 28. Duda got 43.5 percent of votes in that election, and Trzaskowski got 30.5 percent  but is expected to pick up many of the votes that went to the others. There are nearly 30 million eligible voters.
A former European Parliament lawmaker, Trzaskowski has vowed to heal the social divide in the country and respect democratic rules.
“The stakes in this election are extremely high,” he told reporters Thursday.
Law and Justice will either “continue to destroy independent institutions, further try to politicize courts, destroy local governments and threaten the freedom of the media, or we will have a democratic state where the president restores the balance,” he said.
“It’s now or never,” he added.
Trzaskowski’s support is strongest in larger cities and among more highly educated people, according to exit polls from the first round.
At a Trzaskowski rally in Gniezno on Tuesday, Wlodzimierz Mokracki, a 74-year-old who still teaches at technical schools, believes Poland’s 30-year-old democracy is on the line.
If Trzaskowski wins, Mokracki said, “we will go back to a democratic state. I will not be afraid to say what I think, because today they are taking the first small steps toward intimidating us.”
The election was originally scheduled for May, but was put off amid political wrangling over concerns for public health during the coronavirus pandemic. To date there are some 37,000 infections and almost 1,600 deaths in Poland.
Sunday’s vote, just like the first round, will be held under a strict sanitary conditions.
Voters must wear masks and gloves, maintain a safe distance and use hand sanitizer. They can use their own pens to mark ballots. Election officials must wear masks and sit apart from each other, and ballot boxes will be regularly disinfected in the well-ventilated polling stations.
Morawiecki, the prime minister, said the virus is “retreating” and urged everyone to “go in a throng and vote,” which was seen as encouragement to Duda’s traditional base of older supporters, some of whom did not vote in June’s first round out of health concerns.
“The political situation is tense, the outcome may be a very close call, and that has pushed the coronavirus theme into the background,” Jaroslaw Flis, a political scientist with the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, was quoted as saying by the Gazeta Prawna newspaper.
Concerns were raised after the first round that voting was not possible in some places abroad, where it is done only by mail, because many ballots reached voters too late.
Trzaskowski won 48.13 perccent of votes cast abroad, while Duda got 20.86 percent, according to official results.
It remained to be seen if the procedures, carried out by Poland’s government-controlled diplomatic missions abroad, will improve for the runoff.


US begins highest level Taiwan visit in decades

Updated 58 min 55 sec ago

US begins highest level Taiwan visit in decades

  • During the three-day visit Health Secretary Alex Azar will meet President Tsai Ing-wen
  • Under President Donald Trump, US relations with Taiwan have warmed dramatically

TAIPEI: A senior member of US President Donald Trump’s administration landed in Taiwan Sunday for Washington’s highest level visit since switching diplomatic recognition to China in 1979, a trip Beijing has condemned.
During the three-day visit Health Secretary Alex Azar will meet President Tsai Ing-wen, who advocates Taiwan being recognized as a sovereign nation and is loathed by China’s leaders.
Azar is the most senior US cabinet member to visit Taiwan in decades and his visit comes as relations between the world’s two biggest economic powers plunge to historic lows.
In recent days, Trump has ordered sweeping restrictions on popular Chinese apps TikTok and WeChat and the US Treasury Department slapped sanctions on Hong Kong’s leader over a tough law that curbs dissent.
Washington has billed the Taiwan trip as an opportunity to learn from the island’s fight against the coronavirus and to celebrate its progressive values.
“This trip is a recognition of Taiwan’s success in combating COVID-19 and a testament to the shared beliefs that open and democratic societies are best equipped to combating disease threats like COVID-19,” a health and human services department official told reporters ahead of the visit.
But Beijing balks at any recognition of self-ruled Taiwan, which it claims as its own territory and vows to one day seize, by force if necessary.
It has described Azar’s visit as a threat to “peace and stability,” while China’s defense minister warned against Washington making any “dangerous moves.”
As well as meeting Tsai, Azar will hold talks with his counterpart Chen Shih-chung and Foreign Minister Joseph Wu.
He will also meet coronavirus experts and give a speech to public health students as well as alumni of a training program with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Taiwan has become a poster child for defeating the coronavirus thanks to a well-honed track and tracing program as well as firm border controls.
Despite its proximity and economic links to China it has recorded fewer than 500 infections and seven deaths.
In contrast the US has recorded the most deaths in the world with more than 160,000 fatalities.
As public disapproval has grown for his handling of the epidemic, Trump has pivoted from his previous focus on striking a trade deal with China to blaming the country for the coronavirus crisis.
The two countries have clashed on a range of issues, from trade to espionage allegations and Beijing’s human rights record such as the mass incarceration of Uighur Muslims and the political crackdown in Hong Kong.
Washington remains the leading arms supplier to Taiwan but has historically been cautious in holding official contacts with it.
Under Trump, relations with Taiwan have warmed dramatically and he has approved a number of major military sales, including F-16 fighter jets.
The last cabinet minister to visit Taiwan was in 2014 when the then head of the Environmental Protection Agency led a delegation.