Populists top Poland vote

Warsaw, Oct 14 (AFP/APP): Poland’s governing right-wing party topped 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, outpacing the centrist Civic Coalition (KO) opposition with 27.4 percent support (131 seats) and a leftist coalition that took 12.4 percent (46 seats), according to an Ipsos poll including partial official results published early Monday.

“We have four years of hard work ahead. Poland must change more and it must change for the better,” said PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, whose party controlled 231 seats in the 460-seat lower house of parliament up to now.

“We deserve more,” he said, referring to the projections which suggest PiS falls well short of the 307 seats required to change the constitution — long among Kaczynski’s top priorities.

But experts say that a strong PiS win means it could continue court reforms that risk undermining judicial independence and the rule of law, something likely to further stoke conflict with the European Union.

Should final results confirm its expanded majority, “we can expect the PiS to further limit liberal democracy,” Warsaw University political scientist Anna Sosnowska-Materska told AFP.

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

Confederation, a new far-right libertarian party, captured 6.4 percent support for 13 seats, according to Ipsos. The PSL farmers/Kukiz 15 alliance took 9.1 percent of the vote for 30 seats.

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– Welfare state –

In office since 2015, Kaczynski’s PiS has focussed on poorer rural voters, coupling family values with the introduction of welfare state spending like a popular child allowance, tax breaks for low-income earners and hikes to pensions and the minimum wage.

“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, who is widely regarded as Poland’s de facto leader, 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.

He 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.

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– ‘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.

KO leader Grzegorz Schetyna said he was confident the opposition would dominate the upper house or Senate.

“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.

“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.

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– ‘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 election results are due on Monday.

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