Poland’s ruling right-wing populist Law and Justice (PiS) party is projected to win Sunday’s parliamentary election with 43.6 percent of the vote, according to an exit poll compiled by Ipsos.
The result, if confirmed, would mean that PiS can hope for an outright majority of 239 seats in the 460-strong lower house, the Sejm, Poland’s main legislative body.
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The opposition Civic Coalition, comprising the Civic Platform (PO) party formerly led by European Council President Donald Tusk and some smaller liberal parties, came second with 27.4 percent.
The Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) followed suit with 11.9 percent and the Polish People’s Party (PSL) with 9.6 percent, according to the exit poll.
An overall majority in the lower house of parliament would give the right-wing populist PiS a strong mandate to continue its controversial reforms of the justice system, media, cultural institutions, banking and the energy sector.
Voter turnout reached 61.1 per cent according to Ipsos, making it the highest result since 1989 when the Soviet Union fell and communism came to an end in Poland.
In office since 2015 and led by former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, PiS has sought to mobilise poorer rural voters by coupling family values with a popular new child allowance, tax breaks for low-income earners and increasing pensions and minimum wage.
It is the first party since the fall of communism to break with the austerity of previous governments, whose free-market policies took a moribund communist economy and transformed it into one of Europe‘s most dynamic.
However, many Poles were left out in that transformation and inequalities grew, creating grievances.
Polls opened at 5:00 GMT and closed at 19:00 GMT.
At 15:00 GMT the turnout stood at 45.94 percent, seven percentage points higher than at the same time in the previous parliamentary election in 2015.
Al Jazeera’s Andrew Simmons reporting from Warsaw just before the exit poll was announced said that it would be “a remarkable situation if the ruling Law and Justice party actually wins and gets a second term because it would be seen to have the outmost mandate to push ahead with its reform programs.”
“That won’t be good news for many people in the EU, which Poland joined in 2004. Poland is a different animal – if you could put it like that – in the EU these days than back then. It’s more aligned to Hungary and other right-wing parties in Europe than any others.
“This is a populist government, a government that has been giving a number of benefits to the population and has certainly by all accounts seem to have gained on that,” Simmons said.
Defending Catholic values
The party has cast the election as a choice between a society rooted in traditional Catholic values and a liberal order that promotes a chosen few and undermines family life.
Opposition parties and Poland’s European Union partners say the outgoing government has undermined the independence of the judiciary and the media and made Poland less welcoming for sexual and ethnic minorities.
“We can guarantee that Polish families are protected, that Poland’s freedom is protected and that the Polish Church is protected against attacks,” PiS leader Kaczynski told supporters in its eastern rural heartland on Friday.
The Church does not openly back any party but senior officials have given the PiS tacit support.
On October 1, Poland’s senior bishop wrote that Catholics should vote for those to defend the right to life from conception, support family values and define marriage as between a man and a woman.
During campaigning, PiS has called lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights an invasive foreign influence that threatens Poland’s national identity.
The party has also shifted Poland’s foreign policy away from the European mainstream, becoming a leading proponent of calls to take some powers away from the EU, with which Warsaw is embroiled in a long-running dispute over judicial and media reforms.
Brussels has taken legal action to force Polish authorities to row back on legislation it says has politicised the courts.
Closer ties with Trump
PiS has also sought closer ties with US President Donald Trump, with whom it shares views on coal mining, climate and abortion – raising concern among some western EU diplomats that Trump could use the biggest of the EU’s former communist states to sow discord in Brussels over issues such as Iran.
Deeply distrustful of its former Soviet master, Poland has persuaded Trump to bolster Washington’s military presence on Polish soil to counter Russia’s growing assertiveness since its 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
On the economy, PiS has promised to shake off the post-communist Polish model that relied on cheap labour by more than doubling the minimum wage over eight years.
Some economists say the party’s already vast social spending has exposed the economy to too much risk at the time of an economic slowdown in the West, while opposition critics say it has deprived the healthcare and education systems of funding.