WARSAW: Poles vote in an election on Sunday that could end nearly a decade of economic and political stability in the country by bringing to power a conservative, euro-sceptic party whose policies diverge from those of many of Poland’s European allies.
If opinion polls are correct, the ruling Civic Platform (PO), a pro-market, center-right grouping in power for the past eight years, will lose to the conservative Law and Justice opposition party (PiS), run by the twin brother of late president Lech Kaczynski, Jaroslaw.
Most polls show PiS as the frontrunner on more than 30 percent. PO is second with just over 20 percent. Several small parties are also running, spanning the political spectrum from ultra-right to liberal and extreme left.
Distrustful of the European Union and an advocate of a strong NATO hand in dealing with Moscow, PiS opposes joining the euro zone in the near future, promises more welfare spending on the poor and wants banks subject to new taxation.
Michal Zurawski, a man in his mid-30s who voted for PiS in the morning in central Warsaw, said he backed the party’s anti-corruption narrative and economic program.
“Their offer is targeted at those who are less affluent and that suits me. Taking care of this group and creating better social and labor conditions for them is good, will benefit Poland’s economy and the country as a whole,” Zurawski said.
PiS also opposes relocating migrants from the Middle East to Poland, arguing they could threaten Poland’s Catholic way of life – raising the prospect of tensions with the EU on the issue.
On the campaign trail, Kaczynski and other PiS leaders have sought to tap into anger that the economic success is not more evenly shared out and into nationalist sentiment fanned by immigration fears, particularly among young voters.
Poland, a country of 38 million people, has seen its economy expand by nearly 50 percent in the last decade. It was the only EU member not to slide into recession after the 2008 financial crisis. But pockets of poverty and stagnation remain, particularly in the east.
“There is a broader phenomenon of a return to national, religious, community values being seen all across Europe,” said political analyst Aleksander Smolar. “PiS uses clear … language in this respect.”
In the same central Warsaw polling station, Ryszard Gornicki, 70, cast his ballot for PO and said that was to prevent PiS, which ardently propagates Catholic values, from taking over.
“I think PO has done quite a lot in recent years. They need to fix some mistakes but mainly I just don’t want to have a church on every corner. I want things to be normal, as they were. I want Poland to continue catching up with Europe.”
Kaczynski raised eyebrows in Poland and some European capitals this month when he said migrants fleeing war in the Middle East and Africa may bring new diseases and parasites to Poland.
PO Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz later quipped that Kaczynski, a known cat lover, wasn’t too worried about owning cats even though they can carry diseases dangerous to people.
PiS’s advocacy of a robust Western approach toward Russia following Moscow’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine might also complicate any future bridge-building between the EU and Russia.
Opinion polls show only the two main rivals – PiS and PO – look certain to pass the threshold. But several smaller parties running on anti-establishment platforms with the support young voters may also win seats in the Polish parliament.
Among them is Kukiz’15, a grouping run by former Polish rock star Pawel Kukiz. It wants to tax “bank gangsters” and says Poland is a “colony of foreign governments”. Kukiz ran in a presidential election in May, winning a surprising 21 percent.
“I hope we enter parliament in such numbers that it will allow us to make a crack in the system, allowing the citizens, the nation to win back control over the state, which has been taken away from them,” Kukiz told a campaign rally.
The fringe parties running mean PiS, even if it wins, may have to seek coalition partners to rule, raising the possibility of extended talks in the weeks after the vote.
It also leaves room for PO to retain its hold on power, if PiS fails to form a functioning majority in parliament and the centrists secure the support of leftist groupings such as United Left (ZL) or the liberal Nowoczesna.
Polls opened at 7 a.m. local time (0600 GMT) and are due to close at 9 p.m. (2000 GMT). Poland’s election commission is due to give first partial turnout figures at 12.30 GMT on Sunday. Exit polls will be available immediately after voting ends.