Poles vote on Sunday in a presidential ballot that could place significant curbs on the power of their nationalist government.
President Andrzej Duda is an ally of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party and if he loses, the opposition could force a big change in Polish politics.
His closest rival is the liberal, centre-right mayor of Warsaw, Rafal Trzaskowski.
Sunday’s vote is expected to go to a run-off in two weeks’ time.
The election is being watched closely across Europe, as Mr Duda’s Law and Justice allies have frequently clashed with the EU over their controversial reforms to the judiciary and media.
When President Duda this month condemned the promotion of LGBT rights as an “ideology” more destructive than communism, European Commission Vice-President Vera Jourova said it was “really sad” when European politicians in high office “decide to target minorities for potential political gains”.
The president’s main rival has promised to repair ties with Brussels.
Poland’s president has the power of veto. If the next president used it against the governing party, it would not have the necessary majority in parliament to overturn it.
Why Trump likes Duda
The governing party has had more success across the Atlantic, and last Wednesday Mr Duda became the first foreign leader to visit US President Donald Trump since the coronavirus pandemic.
“He’s doing a terrific job. The people of Poland think the world of him,” said President Trump, in what was widely seen as a domestic boost for Mr Duda. Mr Trump said it was the third time he had hosted the Polish leader and he thought Mr Duda would “be successful” in the presidential vote.
President Trump also promised the Polish leader that some of the thousands of US troops being moved out of Germany would be sent to Poland instead.
Who will win?
If Andrzej Duda gets 50% of the vote on Sunday, he will win – but he is unlikely to achieve that. If the mayor of Warsaw attracts as much support as the opinion polls suggest, then Mr Trzaskowski will take part in a run-off that is currently too close to call.
The Warsaw mayor has risen fast in the polls since joining the race in May. Previously a member of Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform government, Mr Trzaskowski won the capital’s race for mayor in 2018 promising “Warsaw for All”.
Mr Duda was originally an aide to ex-President Lech Kazcynski, the co-founder of Law and Justice who died in a plane crash. He is seen as a devout Catholic and signed pledges to prevent gay couples from marrying or adopting children.
There are nine other candidates in the race, including Szymon Holownia, presenter of TV show “I’ve got talent!” who is third in the polls. As a self-styled progressive Catholic, his voters will be key in any second round.
Other candidates include:
- Wladyslaw Kosiniak-Kamysz, leader of the PSL Polish People’s Party, which is seen as a rural farmers’ party trying to attract city voters
- Krzysztof Bosak, a far-right Eurosceptic politician who wants to bring back the death penalty
- Robert Biedron, Poland’s first openly gay MP who became a mayor in northern Poland; gay rights have become a key target for the Duda campaign
How coronavirus frustrated Duda
This election was due to take place in May, when Mr Duda was higher in the polls and had a better chance of winning in the first round.
Although the epidemic had not yet peaked, the government was desperate for the May vote to go ahead. It eventually backed down when a junior coalition partner joined the opposition in saying Law and Justice were putting politics before public health.
Poland has won praise from the World Health Organization (WHO) for its response to the outbreak. It imposed a strict lockdown in early March and has largely escaped the worst of the pandemic, with just over 1,400 deaths and 33,000 infections.
But the epidemic has pushed Poland’s economy towards recession.
The country saw an outbreak at a coal mine in the industrial heartland of Upper Silesia earlier this month and work at a dozen mines was halted.