Poles were voting yesterday in an election that the governing populists look set to win after a flurry of generous welfare measures coupled with attacks on LGBT rights and western values but their majority could be at risk.
Author Olga Tokarczuk, a known government critic who won the Nobel Prize for Literature on Thursday, gave the opposition an unexpected last-minute boost, urging Poles to choose wisely “between democracy and authoritarianism”, calling the vote the “most important” since Poland threw off communism in 1989.
In office since 2015 and led by ex-prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party has focused on poorer rural voters by coupling family values with a popular new child allowance, tax breaks for low-income earners and hikes to pensions and the minimum wage.
Widely regarded as Poland’s de facto leader, Kaczynski has stoked deep social division by attacking sexual minorities and rejecting Western liberal values, all with the tacit blessing of Poland’s influential Catholic Church which holds sway over rural voters.
He is among several populist leaders in the European Union favouring greater national sovereignty over the federalism championed by powerhouses France and Germany.
The PiS has also sought close ties with the Trump administration.
Poland has long regarded the US as the primary guarantor of its security within the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) alliance and as a bulwark against Russia, its Soviet-era master with whom tensions still run high.
“The PiS takes care of workers, they raised the minimum wage and created the 500+ child allowance,” Michal, a 34-year-old Warsaw electrician and PiS supporter told AFP after voting in Warsaw.
“In foreign policy, the PiS is standing up for Poland, not just blindly agreeing to what Germany or France want,” he added, declining to provide his full name.
Backed by outgoing EU Council President Donald Tusk – from Poland and Kaczynski’s arch-rival on the domestic scene – the opposition Civic Coalition (KO) draws mainly on urban voters upset by the PiS’s divisive politics, judicial reforms threatening the rule of law, graft scandals and monopolisation of public media.
“I voted for democracy, to safeguard the future of my grandchildren,” Jadwiga Sperska, a 64-year-old working pensioner and KO supporter, said outside a Warsaw polling station.
“The current government’s direction could lead us out of the EU,” she added.
Condemning the anti-LGBT drive and close church ties, but sharing the PIS’s welfare goals, the left is set to return to parliament after a four-year hiatus.
“I support an open, tolerant society, without aggression and with same-sex unions,” said Monika Pronkiewicz, a 31-year-old public sector worker and left-wing voter in Warsaw.
Two separate opinion polls published on Friday suggested the PiS’s majority could be at risk as its support was on par with the combined score of three opposition groups – the centrist KO, a leftist coalition and a farmers’ party.
“Turnout will decide whether the PiS governs alone, whether it must build a coalition, or even if it might lose its majority,” Anna Materska-Sosnowska, a Warsaw University political scientist, told AFP, adding that it stands to benefit most from strong voter participation.
Turnout in the 2015 election was 50.92%.
By noon, turnout stood at 18.1%, 1.6 percentage points higher than at the same time in the previous poll, the state election commission said.
Kaczynski has capitalised on a populist backlash against liberal urban elites, similar to trends in Western Europe and the US.
His party’s bid to build a welfare state is addressed to Poles who feel they reaped little benefit from the explosive growth and unfettered free-market drive after communism fell.
Analysts suggest that generous social outlays have also made the PiS a “teflon party”, cushioning its reputation amid a string of high-profile graft scandals involving senior members.
The KO chose Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska, the even-tempered 62-year-old deputy parliamentary speaker, as its candidate for premier in a bid to counter the PiS.
“Chairman Kaczynski divides people ... let’s protect Poland against such division, against such hatred,” she told supporters this week.
The KO has vowed to reverse PiS court reforms, which the EU says threaten judicial independence and the rule of law, but has otherwise offered voters few concrete measures.
Experts warn a strong PiS win could allow it to push through more judicial reforms likely to stoke conflict with the EU.
Critics attribute strong economic growth under the PiS to favourable external factors.
Unemployment in the EU country of 38mn people is at a record low of some 5%, in a tight labour market that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) says became the world’s top temporary migrant labour destination in 2017.
Preliminary results are due today.
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