WARSAW, Poland -- Poland's right-wing president, Andrzej Duda, is fighting for a second term in an election today that will test whether he was helped by a campaign that depicted LGBT rights as a dangerous "ideology" and an unconventional last-minute reception by President Donald Trump at the White House.
It will be another electoral test for populist leaders in Europe amid the coronavirus pandemic. Last weekend, Serbia's autocratic right-wing president, Aleksandar Vucic, strengthened his hold on power in a parliamentary election that was boycotted by opposition parties.
The Polish election is widely seen as an important test for democracy, in this case in the fifth-most-populous country in the 27-member European Union.
A field of 11 candidates -- all men -- could make it hard for anyone to reach the required 50% of votes, in which case a runoff will be held July 12.
Duda is backed by Law and Justice, a nationalist, conservative party that is popular with many for introducing welfare spending programs. Those policies have eased hardships for older Poles and others left behind in the dramatic economic transformation since communism fell in 1989.
"Poland has changed. It has changed for the better," Duda said at a rally Friday, while promising to keep working to make sure Poles achieve Western European living standards.
Duda and Law and Justice, both in power since 2015, have also triggered tensions with the EU and provoked repeated street protests at home for controversial laws giving the party control over the top courts and other key judicial bodies.
Duda, 48, who trained as a lawyer, has signed most of those changes into law, and has been derided by his critics as a "Notary" or "The Pen" for approving changes that some legal experts say violate Poland's own constitution.
The European Union has strongly condemned the judicial laws as violations of democratic standards. This year the U.S.-based group Freedom House downgraded Poland in its ranking from "consolidated democracy" to "semi-consolidated democracy."
"The destruction of the democratic state of law is close to completion," said Jaroslaw Kurski, editor of the liberal daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, in an appeal this week for readers to choose a democratic candidate.
"If we, citizens, democrats, do not mobilize, the next elections will be as 'democratic' as in Belarus, Russia or Hungary," Kurski wrote.
Duda's biggest challenge appears to come from the liberal Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, who belongs to the pro-EU and pro-business Civic Platform party.
That party governed from 2007-15, with Donald Tusk as prime minister until 2014, when he left Poland to become president of the European Council.
Civic Platform oversaw strong economic growth but is now blamed by many for pro-market policies that helped businesses but allowed poverty to fester and economic inequalities to grow.
On the campaign trail, Trzaskowski, 48, has promised to keep Law and Justice's popular spending programs while vowing to restore constitutional norms.
Duda has dropped his anti-gay language in recent days, saying at a rally Friday that "in Poland there is place for everyone."
The election comes four days after Duda was hosted by Trump, who praised Poland for its "rule of law."
"He's doing a terrific job. The people of Poland think the world of him," Trump said Wednesday at a news conference with Duda.