Poles are voting on Sunday in a fiercely contested election that could redefine their country’s role in the EU, after years of feuding between Warsaw and Brussels and, more recently, Kyiv. The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party led by Jarosław Kaczyński is seeking an unprecedented third term in office after a nationalist campaign in which it questioned Poland’s support for neighbouring Ukraine after Russia’s full-scale invasion last year. Opposition leader and former prime minister Donald Tusk wants to reposition Warsaw on a firm pro-European path, restore the independence of judges and unlock billions of euros of EU funding that was withheld by the European Commission in the spat with the PiS government over judicial reforms. After initially supporting Kyiv, Polish authorities changed tack, first by unilaterally banning Ukrainian grain imports and then by saying that Warsaw would stop delivering weapons and cut benefits for refugees. Polish president Andrzej Duda, who had been one of the staunchest defenders of Kyiv in its war against Russia, raised eyebrows in Washington and Brussels last month after comparing Ukraine to a drowning person who could endanger the life of a rescuer.
This stance was a blow to maintaining western unity behind Ukraine. Most analysts say it was motivated mainly by PiS growing anxious over its re-election and wanting to appease farmers and ultranationalists who are cornerstones of its electorate. Tusk has presented the election as a crucial chance to reverse the slide in the rule of law under PiS and stop further degradation of fundamental rights. “I am sorry that so many years after the fall of communism in Poland, issues such as women’s rights, minority rights, democracy and fair elections have again become the most important points of dispute in Poland,” he said during a campaign rally last month. Both leaders are also fighting for their political survival after a bitter personal conflict that has lasted two decades and drove a wedge in the fifth-largest EU member state.
The hard-fought election has raised concerns that neither leader might be willing to concede defeat if the result is very tight, following a poisonous campaign in which the opposition has repeatedly accused PiS of manipulating the electoral system. This claim has intensified since the government added a referendum to Sunday’s parliamentary election, on four topics that have been at the heart of the ruling party’s campaign. Tusk has urged voters to boycott the referendum, which could complicate and delay the vote count beyond early Monday. Polls will close at 9pm Poland time on Sunday. This week’s opinion polls showed PiS leading by about 5 percentage points ahead of Tusk’s Civic Platform, but neither was expected to secure sufficient votes to govern alone. The outcome could depend on the performance of their potential coalition partners, with a hung parliament being one likely outcome, according to Eurasia Group. Recommended The Big Read The vicious 20-year feud at the centre of Poland’s election Turnout could also play an important role, with both sides seeking to mobilise their core electorates in recent days.
Tusk has sought to win over female voters, many of whom voted for PiS four years ago and are now on the fence about voting altogether. Since Poland’s return to democracy, voters’ participation in parliamentary elections has averaged just over 50 per cent. The opposition has been bolstered by fresh scandals and unexpected problems for the government, ranging from an investigation into the fraudulent sale of Polish visas to the recent resignation of two top military commanders. “I am observing an increase in the energy of potential voters,” said opposition candidate Iwona Śledzińska-Katarasińska, 82, who is hoping to extend her run as the longest-serving member of the Sejm, the lower house of the Polish parliament. She welcomed the fact that more than 600,000 Poles had registered to vote from abroad, almost double the number four years ago. “These elections have aroused incredible emotions and I want to believe that it is mostly among those who want change,” she said. But the ruling party is counting on pollsters under-reporting its support, particularly among ultranationalists and in the Polish countryside. “We believe that we have a silent majority,” said Janusz Kowalski, deputy agriculture minister. “I know lots of voters who don’t want to communicate openly that they vote for Law and Justice.”