Amid fears for democracy, Poles set for one of most crucial elections in decades
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Amid fears for democracy, Poles set for one of most crucial elections in decades

Critics fear Warsaw’s illiberal turn could become irreversible if ruling Law and Justice party, country’s most popular, wins another four-year term

In this photo taken on September 26, 2019, supporters of Poland's ruling right-wing party are standing in line before a candidate's billboard to get to a party convention in Warsaw, Poland, ahead of the parliamentary election in which the Law and Justice party is hoping to win a second term in power. (AP/Czarek Sokolowski)
In this photo taken on September 26, 2019, supporters of Poland's ruling right-wing party are standing in line before a candidate's billboard to get to a party convention in Warsaw, Poland, ahead of the parliamentary election in which the Law and Justice party is hoping to win a second term in power. (AP/Czarek Sokolowski)

LEGIONOWO, Poland — Poland’s ruling conservative party has targeted gays as a campaign tactic. Its programming on state media has drawn comparisons with communist-era propaganda and it has asserted so much control over the judicial system that the European Union has declared the rule of law at risk.

Yet, Law and Justice heads into Sunday’s election to the 460-seat lower house and the 100-seat Senate as Poland’s most popular party, largely thanks to generous social spending and an assertive Poland-first stance toward the EU and other countries.

Concerns about democracy have made this one of the country’s most momentous elections since the fall of communism 30 years ago. Critics fear Poland’s illiberal turn could become irreversible if the party wins another four-year term.

In a sign of the deep divide in Polish society, the party’s supporters approve of its conservative defense of the traditional family. For a country whose fate was largely controlled by foreign powers for much of the past two centuries, many Poles like to project strength to the outside world and credit the powerful party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski with defending the nation’s interests when it takes a defiant stance to European partners.

In this photo taken on September 26, 2019 supporters of Poland’s ruling right-wing party attend a convention in Plock, Poland, ahead of the parliamentary election in which his Law and Justice party is hoping to win a second term in power. (AP/Czarek Sokolowski)

Kaczynski does not hold any formal role in government, but is widely seen as the most powerful man in Poland, picking the prime minister and the Cabinet from behind the scenes.

Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk, who won the 2018 Nobel prize for literature on Thursday, is one who believes these are the most important elections since 1989.

“I think this is a choice between democracy and authoritarianism,” Tokarczuk said Friday in Germany, where she was on a book tour.

Kaczynski’s party has been campaigning under the slogan “A Good Time for Poland,” and many agree the country is better off than it has been for much of the past century after almost 30 years of steady economic growth and recent generous social spending policies.

In this photo taken on October 8, 2019 Poland’s ruling right-wing party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, center, is applauded by party members after he spoke at a convention in in Warsaw, Poland. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

“We are at a level where we can talk about prosperity,” Kaczynski asserted in a recent interview on state radio. “I have been saying this for years: you cannot be telling people all the time that they need to make sacrifices.”

His party has lowered the retirement age, increased pensions and subsidies for farmers and given tax relief to Poles under 26. But it’s the party’s flagship policy — known as 500+ — that has had the biggest effect. Families get cash transfers of 500 zlotys ($125) per child per month irrespective of income.

“I can see how things are getting better for young people,” said Tamara Sobierska, a party supporter at a recent campaign rally in Legionowo, a town near Warsaw. Her daughter receives $250 a month in cash subsidies for her two children and her son benefits from the tax relief for young workers.

“There have been no social programs until now for young people, and this is what I find most convincing.”

Henryk Domanski, a sociologist with the Polish Academy of Sciences, also sees the focus on those who have been left out of the country’s post-communist economic miracle as key.

“Law and Justice is the first party that not only says it will fight for the interests of the lower classes … who until now have been ignored, treated by politicians as inferior, but that actually does it,” Domanski said.

In this photo taken on September 26, 2019, Poland’s ruling right-wing party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski speaks at a convention Legionowo, Poland. (AP/Czarek Sokolowski)

The child benefit, in particular, is so popular that even the pro-business opposition Civic Platform party, which governed before Law and Justice, has vowed to keep it.

Law and Justice has campaigned heavily against Jewish Holocaust restitution claims, leading Jewish leaders to warn that the debate had turned anti-Semitic. The month of May saw thousands of Polish nationalists march to the US Embassy to protest US pressure on Poland to compensate Jews whose families lost property during the Holocaust. It appeared to be one of the largest anti-Jewish street demonstrations in recent times.

Israel and Poland have also seen diplomatic tensions over Polish officials’ rejection of any culpability by the nation for anti-Semitic atrocities of the past, particularly during the Holocaust. Last year, the government introduced a controversial law that forbids blaming the Polish nation for Nazi crimes (though the legislation was softened following Israeli pressure to remove punitive measures).

Recent months have seen a dramatic rise in reports of Polish anti-Semitism online, in the media and in local politics.

Last month, the office of Polish President Andrzej Duda denied a report that the president had blamed Israel for recent anti-Semitic incidents in the country in a meeting with American Jewish officials.

An opinion poll by Kantar published Friday showed Law and Justice at 40 percent and the centrist and pro-EU Civic Coalition, an alliance of several parties of which Civic Platform is the biggest, trailing at 26%.

Civic Platform governed Poland from 2007-15 with Donald Tusk, the EU leader, at the helm most of that time. It has struggled since the charismatic leader took up a key post in the EU in Brussels in 2014.

What seems to hold the most interest is whether Law and Justice can win a majority of seats in the lower house, the main legislating chamber. In 2015, it won 38 % of the votes but ended up with a small majority.

In this photo taken on September 26, 2019 supporters of Poland’s ruling right-wing party attend a convention Legionowo, Poland. (AP/Czarek Sokolowski)

If Law and Justice fails to win a majority, it would most likely need to form a coalition with another party.

According to the Kantar poll, only three other parties would make it into parliament: a left-wing alliance at 12%, the agrarian Polish People’s Party, and a far-right group called Confederation, which both polled 7%. The poll gave a margin of error of 3%.

The 2015 election took place during Europe’s migration crisis, which Law and Justice capitalized upon. Kaczynski said the migrants carried “parasites and protozoa,” language that critics said evoked the xenophobia in Europe before World War II. The government refused to accept any refugees as part of an EU resettlement scheme, another issue that strained relations with Brussels.

Soon after that election, Kaczynski labeled his critics the “worst sort of Poles.”

A man sits on a monument to Poland’s late president Lech Kaczynski in downtown Warsaw, Poland on October 11, 2019. (AP/Czarek Sokolowski)

The party has also targeted gays and lesbians, depicting them as a threat at a time that the LGBT movement has grown more visible and assertive.

Duda, who hails from the party, has given his support in subtle ways, even though as president he is required to be non-partisan.

On Thursday, state TV broadcast a program entitled “Invasion” that depicted the LGBT movement as an attack on Catholicism and gays and lesbians as pedophiles who threaten Polish children.

Just before the program, Duda addressed viewers, urging them to vote.

“It is now our votes that will decide about Poland, about what kind of country our children will grow up in,” Duda said.

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