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Populists top Poland vote, expand majority on welfare, family values

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Leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski addreses supporters after the first exit polls during the party’s electoral evening in Warsaw, Poland, on October 13, 2019. – Poland’s governing right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party won the general election in Poland, expanding its majority, according to an exit poll by the Ipsos institute. (Photo by Wojtek RADWANSKI / AFP)

Poland’s governing right-wing party took the lead in Sunday’s general election, an exit poll showed, expanding its majority thanks to a raft of welfare measures coupled with attacks on LGBT rights and Western values.

The Law and Justice party (PiS) scored 43.6 percent of the vote for 239 seats in parliament, outpacing the centrist Civic Coalition (KO) opposition with 27.4 percent support (130 seats) and a leftist coalition that took 11.9 percent (43 seats), according to an Ipsos exit poll for Poland’s three major television stations.

“We have four years of hard work ahead. Poland must change more and it must change for the better,” Jaroslaw Kaczynski, PiS leader, told supporters at its Warsaw headquarters.

“I hope that the (official results) tomorrow will confirm our success,” Kaczynski said.

Experts have warned that a strong PiS win means it could proceed with court reforms that risk undermining judicial independence and the rule of law, something that is likely to further stoke conflict with the European Union.

In-office since 2015, Kaczynski’s PiS has focused on poorer rural voters, 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 also stoked deep social division by attacking sexual minorities and rejecting Western liberal values, all with the tacit blessing of Poland’s influential Catholic Church which holds sway over rural voters.

“The PiS is finally taking care of the weakest, most vulnerable members of society,” Kasia, a 40-year-old psychologist working at a women’s shelter, told AFP after voting in Warsaw. “I’ve seen it first hand at work.”

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

The PiS has sought favour with the Trump administration. Poland has long regarded the United States 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.

“In foreign policy, the PiS is standing up for Poland, not just blindly agreeing to what Germany or France want,” Michal, a 34-year-old Warsaw electrician said after voting.

– ‘Safeguard future‘ –
Backed by outgoing EU Council President Donald Tusk — from Poland and Kaczynski’s arch-rival on the domestic scene — the opposition Civic Coalition (KO) has drawn mainly on urban voters upset by the PiS’s 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,” she added.

Condemning the anti-LGBT drive and close church ties, but sharing the PiS’s welfare goals, the left returned to parliament after a four-year hiatus.

“I support an open, tolerant society, without aggression and with same-sex unions,” said Monika Pronkiewicz, a 31-year-old public sector worker and left-wing voter in Warsaw.

In other parties, the PSL farmers/Kukiz 15 alliance took 9.6 percent of the vote for 34 seats and the Confederation, a far-right libertarian party, captured 6.4 percent support for 13 seats, Ipsos exit poll showed.

– ‘Teflon party’ –
Kaczynski has tapped into a populist backlash against liberal elites, similar to trends in Western Europe and the US.

His party’s bid to build a welfare state appeals to Poles who felt left behind amid the explosive growth and unfettered free-market drive after communism fell in 1989.

Analysts suggest the social outlays have made the PiS a “Teflon party”, cushioning its reputation amid a string of graft scandals involving senior members.

The KO had vowed to reverse PiS court reforms, which the EU says threaten judicial independence, but otherwise offered voters little.

Critics attribute strong economic growth under the PiS to favourable external factors.

A tight labour market in the EU country of 38 million people saw it become the world’s top temporary migrant labour destination in 2017, according to the OECD.

Preliminary official results are due on Monday.


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