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Virus Crisis Boosts Polish President Before Vote Under Lockdown

Marek Strzelecki

(Bloomberg) --

Polish President Andrzej Duda has rarely been busier than since he suspended his election campaign and called on rivals to follow suit amid the coronavirus outbreak.

The incumbent has criss-crossed the country and made television appearances at a border checkpoint, a hospital, a food bank and even oil group PKN Orlen SA’s new production line of hand sanitizer.

His aides say he’s carrying out presidential duties. His opponents accuse him and his allies in the nativist ruling Law & Justice Party of exploiting the pandemic to secure his re-election. Opinion polls show Duda gaining.

Poland has 536 confirmed cases of Covid-19 as of Saturday night, a fraction of the number of infected in other large European Union nations. But the government was one of the bloc’s first to shut borders and shopping centers and ban mass gatherings, making election campaigning impossible.

Still, authorities have refused to yield to opposition demands to postpone the May 10 ballot, which may be followed by a runoff between the top two candidates two weeks later if nobody wins at least 50% of the vote.

“Today we need political stabilization, that’s a reason to hold elections on May 10,” Law & Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski said on Saturday.

Not Distant

While Duda has repeatedly appealed to citizens to stay at home and touted the merits of social distancing, his visits to places affected by the virus appear to help his popularity. As the virus spreads across Europe, Switzerland decided to scrap a referendum on immigration slated for May, while France delayed the second round of municipal elections.

Law & Justice is like a “cynic, which seeks to hang on to power at all cost, even the health and lives Poles,” Borys Budka, leader of the Civic Platform opposition party, said on Saturday.

A survey this week showed Duda winning an outright majority in the first round, taking 30 percentage points more of the vote than his closest rival. Several weeks ago, polls predicted he’ll have difficulty winning half the votes in a runoff scenario against his top-ranking adversaries.

The pandemic has transformed the campaign, making it into a test of how well the government handles the threat. Opposition accusations that the government has fostered of endemic corruption, an unprecedented erosion of democratic standards and a loss of influence in the EU have suddenly become secondary issues.

While the tough response to the virus appears to have strong support, the situation may change once the restrictions take their toll on the economy and the health-care system is tested.

“President Duda is campaigning amid the spreading virus, but things may change any day,” said Olgierd Annusewicz, a political scientist at Warsaw University. “The virus is a ticking bomb, and in few weeks the ruling party may well decide to delay elections.”

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