WARSAW, Poland -- Voters in Poland today will decide a tight runoff election between populist incumbent President Andrzej Duda and his liberal pro-European Union challenger, Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski.
The race could hinge on a narrow margin of voters, which added urgency to the final days of campaigning in the central EU nation of 38 million people.
If Duda is reelected, 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 election, which is in 2023.
The party's welfare policies have helped reduce income inequality, especially in rural areas where the party's attachment to Roman Catholic traditions also goes far.
But the Law and Justice party has exacerbated divisions in society with rhetoric marginalizing liberals, gay and transgender people and other minority groups. It has also drawn criticism from some EU leaders for laws that increase political influence over Poland's justice system.Gallery: Poland presidential runoff
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. Also, since the Polish president represents the country abroad, Trzaskowski would bring a more pro-European 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.
Duda and Trzaskowski, both 48, eliminated nine other candidates in the first round of voting June 28. Duda got 43.5% support and Trzaskowski got 30.5%. There are nearly 30 million eligible voters and the new president will serve a five-year term.
Duda has the support of the ruling party leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.
He has traveled across Poland 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 has claimed that 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 earlier.
Ryszard Sadowski, 72, a retired biology and gym teacher who turned out to cheer Duda, praised him as a "reliable" man who kept his promises to help improve the lives of regular people. He said he benefited from a new yearly cash bonus for senior citizens 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.
Trzaskowski, a former European Parliament lawmaker, has vowed to heal Poland's social divide and respect democratic rules. His support is strongest in larger cities and among more highly educated people, according to data from the first round.
"The stakes in this election are extremely high," he told reporters last week.
The Law and Justice party 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."
Today's vote, just like the first round, will be held under 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 one another, and ballot boxes will be disinfected regularly in the well-ventilated polling stations.