WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poles vote Sunday for 460 lawmakers in the lower house of parliament, the Sejm, and for 100 in the Senate, for four-year terms. It is considered by many to be the most momentous election in Poland since the Central European nation threw off communism 30 years ago.
WHAT’S AT STAKE?
Supporters of the ruling conservative Law and Justice party, which is far ahead in the polls, see the vote as a chance to maintain generous monthly social benefits that have raised their living standards. They also approve of the way it has put a conservative mark on the nation at a time of liberalizing and secularizing influences from the West. Critics, however, say the party has carried out a relentless attack on the country’s constitutional order. The most serious accusation centers on an overhaul of the justice system that has also been condemned by the European Union and human rights organizations. Critics also stress that the party uses public media to denigrate rivals, and has employed rhetoric that repeatedly targeted minorities and liberals, depicting them as threats or as disloyal to the nation. Some fear the country’s democracy will be irreparable damaged if the conservatives win another four-year mandate.
A STRONG LEADER
Law and Justice party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski is Poland’s most powerful politician even though he has no formal role in the government. Under his leadership, in 2015, the party won ruling majority power unprecedented in the post-communist era. First, the party’s candidate, Andrzej Duda, who was hand-picked by Kaczynski, won the presidency. Then a few months later came the party’s parliamentary victory. Duda has rarely vetoed laws passed by Law and Justice, and the party has gained control of the Constitutional Tribunal, which allows it to pass its laws with little fear of seeing them struck down. Kaczynski’s dominance follows a period of personal tragedy: his identical twin brother President Lech Kaczynski died in a plane crash in Russia in 2010 along with 95 other Poles, many of them state and military leaders from their conservative camp. The 70-year-old only wears black in public to this day in a sign of his continued mourning.
WHO WILL WIN?
Kaczynski’s Law and Justice party, which leans right on social issues but has adopted a left-wing economic program of generous welfare spending, is far ahead of all other parties. Recent polls give it between 40 and 45%, with the second-strongest force, the centrist and pro-EU Civic Coalition, around 25%. An alliance of three left-wing parties has polled between 10 and 15%. The ultimate power arrangement will depend on whether Law and Justice obtains a majority of seats in the Sejm, or if it needs a coalition partner. The Civic Coalition and the leftwing alliance have been very critical of Law and Justice and are unlikely to be partners. If those two groups do better together than Law and Justice, a possible outcome could involve them teaming up to keep Kaczynski’s party out of power — a prospect that seems unlikely but has energized liberal voters.
SMALL PARTIES AND THE FAR-RIGHT QUESTION
If Law and Justice does need a coalition partner, polls show that there are two other parties with a chance of getting into parliament. One is the conservative agrarian Polish People’s Party, which has played the role of kingmaker in several Polish governments including that of former prime minister Donald Tusk, now the EU leader. It has been losing support to Law and Justice, which has increased subsidies for farmers and provided other support for rural areas. The other is Confederation, a far-right group which is openly anti-Semitic and depicts gay people as pedophiles. The party’s name was inspired by the U.S. Confederacy.
Polish voters are also deeply divided over foreign policy under Law and Justice, which has taken an assertive stance, primarily toward the EU and big European countries like Germany and France. Many Poles find that justified — they feel they have been pushed around for too long by those larger powers. Critics, however, say that the assertiveness is counterproductive, and that the country has lost influence in the EU and damaged important alliances with countries that are also its partners in the EU and NATO. In contrast, the party has placed great importance in its relationship with the administration of President Donald Trump, taking an almost submissive stance and flattering the U.S. leader as the government seeks a greater U.S. military presence as protection against Russia.