The populist Polish president is facing a tough re-election challenge

The populist Polish president is facing a tough re-election challenge

BIALYSTOK, Poland (AP) – Seniors in the eastern Polish city of Bialystok sit on the city’s benches after a summer storm and hold small Polish flags while they wait patiently for the man they call ‘my president’.

They lived under the official atheist communist regime for decades, experienced poverty during the transition to capitalism and watched an exodus of young people when Poland joined the European Union in 2004.

Now they feel like they finally have their rightful reward: President Andrzej Duda and the nationalist conservative Justice and Justice party with which he is affiliated share their traditional Catholic beliefs and have returned some of Poland’s new wealth to them through welfare programs that in their power for the past five years.

“What they have done in five years has not been done in the fifty years before,” said 80-year-old Waclaw Waluk, one of those waiting for Duda. “It’s never been better.”

Such strong beliefs in conservative strongholds such as the northeastern region around Bialystok explain why Duda is the most popular of the 11 candidates in the Polish presidential election on Sunday. The area, which has been underdeveloped and poor for decades, has been transformed by a booming economy and EU investment, with new roads and a bustling city center full of cafes and ice cream parlors.

Polls show that with about 40% support, Duda is looking for a second five-year term, for Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, who has nearly 30%. The others all gauge below 10%.

Failure to obtain the majority of votes required to win would result in Duda electing on July 12.

That contest could come down to two 48-year-old politicians embodying the deeply divided nation: Duda, who represents Poland with a traditionalist and nationalist mindset, against Trzaskowki, the multilingual mayor whose supporters want a liberal, cosmopolitan country.

Polls show that such a drain would be extremely close.

Duda could get a boost from a Wednesday meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House, an invitation so close to Sunday’s vote that some view it as election interference by the American leader.

Much of Trzaskowski’s support comes from Poles who are angry with a government that they blame on corruption, incite homophobia and xenophobia and undermine the country’s democratic foundations.

“I will vote for any candidate who is against Duda, and right now Trzaskowski has the best chance of beating him,” said Pawel Bednarczyk, a 40-year-old carpenter in Bialystok who is waiting to hear Trzaskowski in town a day later. to speak. Duda’s visit.

Duda and the ruling Justice and Justice Party won separate presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015, and he has since signed most of the laws that the party has proposed, including controversial legislation that gives her control over Poland’s highest courts and other judicial bodies . His critics mockingly nicknamed him ‘The Pen’.

“If they gave him a phone book, he would sign it,” said Bednarczyk.

Poland has since had an almost constant conflict with the EU, which condemns judicial changes as a wider threat to democratic standards.

Critics also blame Duda for a negative campaign. He called the political opposition “a virus worse than the corona virus” for the Polish economy, even though it oversaw years of strong growth. He has vowed to defend families against “LGBT ideology.” Meanwhile, the taxpayer-funded TV has used anti-Semitic tropics to portray Trzaskowski, who is a Catholic, as connected to foreign Jewish interests.

Duda’s liberal critics see the elections as the last chance to stop an irreversible erosion of democracy in Poland and an opportunity to turn the tide against populism worldwide.

LGBT activists say they feel dehumanized by Duda’s rhetoric and have held street demonstrations. One took place hours before Duda’s speech in Bialystok, where people gathered with signs saying “Love is Love” and “I am a person.”

Ewa Miastkowska, the mother of a homosexual son, said that the anti-LGBT language of Duda and other conservative politicians caused suffering and fear of gay and lesbian Poles and their families.

“They refer to Christian values ​​and family values,” she said. “But in fact, everything they do is contrary to Christianity and the defense of the family.”

Conservative supporters praise Duda for standing up to an increasingly visible gay rights movement. They say democracy is healthy and support the government’s argument for reforming the courts and cleaning up deep-seated corruption.

“He’s Catholic, Christian, he follows faith, he follows church,” said Zenon Perkowski, a Duda supporter in Bialystok.

Duda and Law and Justice are also popular for making promises made five years ago to introduce welfare programs now credited with lifting many Poles out of poverty.

They introduced a monthly cash bonus of 500 zloty ($ 125) to families for every child under 18, regardless of family income. They lowered the retirement age from 67 to 65 for men and 60 for women, increased pensions, lowered the cost of some medications, and also started annual cash bonuses for retirees last year.

The bonuses and the lower retirement age are so popular that Trzaskowski has vowed to keep them because he has heard what voters want. He is part of the Civic Platform, a centrist pro-business party that rejected increased welfare expenditure during the 2007-2015 period. That policy has helped the state budget, but is blamed for increasing economic inequality.

Antoni Kryszylo, a 74-year-old retired taxi driver, says that life was bad in the past. Of his five children, one died and the other four left Poland to “earn a living” and have not returned. Five years ago, he had a pension of 1,700 zloty ($ 430) and was unable to afford heart medications that cost 500 zloty ($ 125) a month.

Now his retirement has risen, the cost of the drug has drastically reduced, and he can afford to take it daily. He says he’s still alive thanks to Duda.

“I could kiss his feet,” he said.

During his speech in Bialystock, Duda promised to continue improving the standard of living of Poland until their country overtakes Western Europe.

“I want a Poland that knows how to protect the weakest,” Duda told the crowd, then was greeted with chants of “Andrzej Duda! And” Long live Poland! “

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