Populists top Poland vote and expand majority, exit polls indicate
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Populists top Poland vote and expand majority, exit polls indicate

A strong win by the Law and Justice party could enable it to proceed with court reforms that risk undermining judicial independence and the rule of law

Leader of Poland's ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski reacts after the first exit polls during the party's electoral evening in Warsaw, Poland, on October 13, 2019 (Wojtek RADWANSKI / AFP)
Leader of Poland's ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski reacts after the first exit polls during the party's electoral evening in Warsaw, Poland, on October 13, 2019 (Wojtek RADWANSKI / AFP)

WARSAW, Poland — Poland’s governing right-wing party took the lead in Sunday’s general election, an exit poll showed, expanding its majority thanks to a raft of welfare measures coupled with attacks on LGBT rights and Western values.

The Law and Justice party (PiS) scored 43.6 percent of the vote for 239 seats in parliament, outpacing the centrist Civic Coalition (KO) opposition with 27.4% support (130 seats) and a leftist coalition that took 11.9% (43 seats), according to an Ipsos exit poll for Poland’s three major television stations.

“We have four years of hard work ahead. Poland must change more and it must change for the better,” Jaroslaw Kaczynski, PiS leader, told supporters at its Warsaw headquarters.

“I hope that the [official results] tomorrow will confirm our success,” Kaczynski said.

Experts have warned that a strong PiS win means it could proceed with court reforms that risk undermining judicial independence and the rule of law, something that is likely to further stoke conflict with the European Union.

In office since 2015, Kaczynski’s PiS has focused on poorer rural voters, 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 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.

“The PiS is finally taking care of the weakest, most vulnerable members of society,” Kasia, a 40-year-old psychologist working at a women’s shelter, told AFP after voting in Warsaw. “I’ve seen it first hand at work.”

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 has sought favor with the Trump administration. Poland has long regarded the United States as the primary guarantor of its security within the NATO alliance and as a bulwark against Russia, its Soviet-era master with whom tensions still run high.

“In foreign policy, the PiS is standing up for Poland, not just blindly agreeing to what Germany or France want,” Michal, a 34-year-old Warsaw electrician said after voting.

The leader of the main opposition party, the Civic Platform, Grzegorz Schetyna, speaks to supporters after first exit polls following Parliamentary election are announced during the election night in Warsaw on October 13, 2019 (Alik KEPLICZ / AFP)

Backed by outgoing EU Council President Donald Tusk — from Poland and Kaczynski’s arch-rival on the domestic scene — the opposition Civic Coalition (KO) has drawn 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 returned 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.

In other parties, the PSL farmers/Kukiz 15 alliance took 9.6% of the vote for 34 seats and the Confederation, a far-right libertarian party, captured 6.4% support for 13 seats, Ipsos exit poll showed.

Kaczynski has tapped into a populist backlash against liberal elites, similar to trends in Western Europe and the US.

Frontrunner of the opposition party Civic Coalition Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska (C) and party leader Grzegorz Schetyna (L) react as first exit polls following Parliamentary election are announced during the election night in Warsaw on October 13, 2019 (Alik KEPLICZ / AFP)

His party’s bid to build a welfare state appeals to Poles who felt left behind amid the explosive growth and unfettered free-market drive after communism fell in 1989.

Analysts suggest the social outlays have made the PiS a “teflon party,” cushioning its reputation amid a string of graft scandals involving senior members.

The KO had vowed to reverse PiS court reforms, which the EU says threaten judicial independence, but otherwise offered voters little.

Critics attribute strong economic growth under the PiS to favorable external factors.

A tight labor market in the EU country of 38 million people saw it become the world’s top temporary migrant labor destination in 2017, according to the OECD.

Preliminary official results are due on Monday.

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.

Under the PiS 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.

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