WARSAW, Poland – Poles began voting Sunday, October 13, in a polarizing election the governing populists look set to win after a flurry of welfare give-aways and attacks on LGBT rights and western values but their majority could be at risk.
The opposition received an unexpected last-minute boost when author Olga Tokarczuk, a known government critic who won the Nobel Prize for Literature on Thursday, urged 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-premier Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party has sought to mobilize 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 powerbroker, Kaczynski has also 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.
Kaczynski is among several populist leaders in the European Union favoring greater national sovereignty over the federalism championed by powerhouses France and Germany.
"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 Agence France-Presse 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.
Turnout is key
Supported by outgoing EU Council President Donald Tusk – Kaczynski's arch-rival – the opposition Citizen's Coalition (KO) draws mainly on urban voters upset by the PiS's divisive politics, judicial reforms threatening the rule of law, graft scandals, and monopolization 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 get back into parliament after a 4-year hiatus.
Two separate opinion polls published Friday suggested the PiS's majority could be at risk as it scored 40-41.7% support, compared to a combined 41.4-45% for the opposition parties – 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.
Turnout in the 2015 election was 50.92%.
Kaczynski has capitalized 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 little.
Experts warn that 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.
Joblessness in the country of 38 million people is at a record low of some 5%, in a tight labour market that the OECD says became the world's top temporary labour destination in 2017.
Around 1.2 million temporary workers, mostly Ukrainians, plugged the gap left by Poles seeking more lucrative jobs in the West after the country joined the EU in 2004.
The first exit polls are expected after voting ends at 1900 GMT. Preliminary results are due Monday. – Rappler.com