Polish President Andrzej Duda declared victory on Monday in a runoff election in which he narrowly won a second five-year term, acknowledging the campaign he ran was often too harsh as he appealed for unity and forgiveness.
The close race followed a bitter campaign between Duda and Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski that was dominated by cultural issues. The government, state media and the influential Roman Catholic Church all mobilized in support of Duda and sought to stoke anti-Semitism, homophobia and xenophobia in order to shore up conservative support.
Duda celebrated what was seen as a mandate for him and the right-wing ruling party that backs him, Law and Justice, to continue on a path that has reduced poverty but raised concerns that democracy is under threat.
“It was a very sharp campaign, probably too sharp at times,” Duda told supporters in Odrzywol, a town near Warsaw. “If anyone is offended by my words, please forgive me. And give me the chance to improve in the next five years.”
Duda received 51.03 percent of Sunday’s vote, while Trzaskowski got 48.97 percent, according to final results Monday from the state electoral commission.
Duda told supporters in Odrzywol that he was grateful and moved by winning the support of more than 10 million voters. He said that with the race now over, it was time to turn to the difficult job of returning the country to strong growth after the economic blow of the coronavirus.
Trzaskowski conceded defeat and congratulated Duda. He thanked his supporters and said his strong showing would be the catalyst to fight to keep Poland from becoming a one-party state.
“This is just the beginning of the road,” Trzaskowski said.
But Adam Michnik, a prominent anti-communist dissident and the founding editor of the liberal Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, said the result bodes badly for Poland’s young democracy.
“Andrzej Duda’s victory will be understood by his voters, and first of all by those in power, as a permission for the kind of politics that Law and Justice has been pursuing for almost five years, and that is a policy of the destruction of the democratic system, of isolating Poland in Europe, of homophobia, of xenophobia, nationalism and of using the Catholic Church as a tool,” Michnik said.
“I would not even rule out a situation in which, if this policy is continued and we see an attempt on the free media, culture and science, there could be another ‘Maidan,’” he said, referring to the bloody 2014 pro-Europe protests in Ukraine.
Critics and human rights groups worry Duda’s victory will boost illiberal tendencies at home and in the European Union, which has also struggled to halt an erosion of rule of law in Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Among those who welcomed Duda’s victory were Orban, as well as the Czech leaders.
Orban congratulated him on Facebook, saying “bravo!” while Czech President Milos Zeman though a spokesman said: “Long live Poland!”
The result was dispiriting for liberals in Europe who are keen to halt what they consider the threat of populism and nationalism.
Duda’s campaign focused on defending traditional family values in the predominantly Catholic nation of 38 million people, and on preserving social spending policies.
The party’s popular policies included lowering the retirement age and paying monthly cash bonuses of 500 zlotys ($125) per child to all families irrespective of income.