Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party is on course for victory in a parliamentary election that politicians on both sides of the country’s bitter partisan divide have billed as the most important in 30 years.
With around 72 per cent of votes counted, Law and Justice, the conservative-nationalist grouping founded and led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, had won 45.8 per cent of the vote, which, if confirmed, would give it a majority in Poland’s parliament.
Civic Coalition, a liberal grouping built around the centre-right Civic Platform once led by Donald Tusk, had 25.5 per cent, while Lewica, a coalition of leftwing parties, had 11.9 per cent. An alliance of the agrarian PSL and the anti-establishment Kukiz 15 had 9.0 per cent. Konfederacja, a far-right group, was on 6.7 per cent and poised to enter parliament for the first time.
Speaking after the first exit poll was released on Sunday evening, Mr Kaczynski hailed Law and Justice’s victory as a vindication of the radical changes it has pushed through during its four years in power.
“We achieved a lot, but we deserve more,” he told a group of cheering supporters at the party’s headquarters in central Warsaw. “Poland needs to keep on changing, and Poland needs to change for the better.”
The result caps a turbulent period for Polish politics. Since taking office in 2015, Law and Justice has subordinated judges to politicians and reduced state media to a pro-government cheerleader, prompting fears at home and in Brussels that Poland, once held up an emblem of the EU’s 2004 eastern expansion, is increasingly drifting into illiberalism.
However, the party has also won over many Poles with generous welfare programmes that have improved the lives of poorer citizens who feel they were left behind during a rapid, but sometimes chaotic, 30-year transition from a failing communist, planned economy to a fast-growing free-market democracy.
“We want to eliminate that eternal Polish complex — [the feeling] that we are poorer and . . . in that sense, somehow worse [than countries in the west],” Mr Kaczynski told a crowd of supporters in Chelm on the last day of campaigning on Friday. “This complex can be eliminated if our policies are continued.”
Voters in Warsaw said that the improvement in their personal circumstances under Law and Justice was one of the main reasons they had decided to back the party.
“If things were good for you in the last four years, then you vote for those who were in power . . . It’s simple” said Bogdan Rosochacki, after voting with his wife in the north of the city. “For me, this team is better. The fundamental thing for me is that they did what they said they would.”
As well as touting its welfare spending, the other hallmark of Law and Justice’s campaign was its relentless attacks on LGBT rights, which it portrayed as a foreign “ideology” and a threat to traditional families.
Yet while the scaremongering helped the party rally its conservative base, it has appalled liberal Poles. Final results are likely to show a deep division between Poland’s big cities, where the opposition tends to fare best, and the countryside, where Law and Justice holds sway.
Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, said that the result was a “huge social mandate” for Law and Justice, and that the party would continue building a “Polish welfare state for all”.
However, the party has also indicated that it intends to continue with its judicial overhaul and raised the prospect of regulating the media like other professions, such as lawyers. The proposal has provoked concern among journalists.
Agata Gostynska-Jakubowska, from the Centre for European Reform, said that such policies could lead to further clashes between Warsaw and Brussels. However, she said she did not expect a big confrontation before Poland holds presidential elections next spring.
“I think there could be clashes here and there . . . but I don’t think that Law and Justice will want to have a fundamental row with the EU, at least in the first year in power, as immediately after the parliamentary elections, they will start gearing up for presidential elections, where they will want to appeal to moderate voters,” she said.