Populists eye victory in Poland on promises of prosperity

WARSAW (AFP) – Poles voted yesterday in a an election the governing populists look set to win after a flurry of generous welfare measures coupled with attacks on western values, but their majority could be at risk.

Author Olga Tokarczuk, a known government critic who won the Nobel Prize for Literature last Thursday, gave the opposition an unexpected last-minute boost, urging Poles to choose wisely “between democracy and authoritarianism,” calling the vote the “most important” since Poland threw off communism in 1989.

In office since 2015 and led by former premier Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party has focussed on 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.

Widely regarded as Poland’s de facto leader, Kaczynski has stoked deep social division by rejecting Western liberal values, all with the tacit blessing of Poland’s influential Catholic Church which holds sway over rural voters.

Kaczynski is among several populist leaders in the European Union (EU) favouring greater national sovereignty over the federalism championed by powerhouses France and Germany.

The PiS has also sought close ties with the Trump administration. Poland has long regarded the United States (US) 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.

“The PiS takes care of workers, they raised the minimum wage and created the 500+ child allowance,” Michal, a 34-year-old Warsaw electrician and PiS supporter told AFP after voting in Warsaw.

A voter casts her ballot at a polling station in Warsaw, Poland. PHOTO: AP

“In foreign policy, the PiS is standing up for Poland, not just blindly agreeing to what Germany or France want,” he added, declining to provide his full name.

Backed by outgoing EU Council President Donald Tusk – from Poland and Kaczynski’s arch-rival on the domestic scene – the opposition Citizen’s Coalition (KO) draws mainly on urban voters upset by the PiS’ divisive politics, judicial reforms threatening the rule of law, graft scandals and monopolisation 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.”

Condemning the close church ties, but sharing the PIS’ welfare goals, the left is set to return to Parliament after a four-year hiatus.

Two separate opinion polls published last Friday suggested the PiS’s majority could be at risk as its support was on par with the combined score of three opposition groups – the centrist KO, a leftist coalition and a farmers’ party.

“Turnout will decide whether the PiS governs alone, whether it must build a coalition, or even if it might lose its majority,” Anna Materska-Sosnowska, a Warsaw University political scientist, told AFP, adding that it stands to benefit most from strong voter participation.

Turnout in the 2015 election was 50.92 per cent. By noon, turnout stood at 18.1 per cent, 1.6 percentage points higher than at the same time in the previous poll, the state election commission said.

Kaczynski has capitalised on a populist backlash against liberal urban elites, similar to trends in Western Europe and the US.

His party’s bid to build a welfare state is addressed to Poles who feel they reaped little benefit from the explosive growth and unfettered free-market drive after communism fell.

Analysts suggested that generous social outlays have also made the PiS a ‘teflon party’, cushioning its reputation amid a string of high-profile graft scandals involving senior members.

The KO chose Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska, the even-tempered 62-year-old Deputy Parliamentary Speaker, as its candidate for premier in a bid to counter the PiS.

The first exit polls are expected after voting ends at 1900 GMT. Preliminary results are due today.