People in Poland are voting in a parliamentary election that the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) is favoured to win, buoyed by the popularity of its social conservatism and generous social spending that have reduced poverty.
In office since 2015 and led by former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the right-wing populist party has sought to mobilise poorer rural voters by coupling family values with a popular new child allowance, tax breaks for low-income earners and hikes to pensions and the 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 over the past week gave Law and Justice between 40 percent and 45 percent support, with the second-strongest force, the centrist pro-EU Civic Coalition, around 25 percent.
The party is hoping to win a majority of seats on Sunday but possible coalition partners, if it needs any, could include two small parties, the conservative agrarian Polish People’s Party and Confederation, a far-right group that is openly anti-Semitic and depicts gay people as pedophiles.
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 Jaroslaw 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 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 row 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 – fuelling concern among some western EU diplomats that Trump could use the biggest of the EU’s ex-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 health care and education systems of funding.