EU Rebel Poland Set to Give Nationalists Tighter Grip in Ballot

Marek Strzelecki and Dorota Bartyzel

(Bloomberg) -- Poles voted in a general election that’s expected to give the ruling party four more years to cement a radical transformation of the country from one of Europe’s biggest successes into a problematic renegade.

Campaigning on a nationalist platform that mixes generous welfare handouts, the demonization of immigrants and gays, and tirades against the European Union’s liberal, multicultural values, the Law & Justice party has a strong lead in opinion polls over the fractured, mainly pro-EU opposition.

It’s betting on a strong victory to finish overhauling the ex-communist nation by purging its institutions of what the party’s leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, this week labeled “elites who work for Poland’s enemies.” Following the model created by Hungarian leader Viktor Orban, the party has imposed its influence over all walks of life, including its courts, media and schools, in a drive the EU has denounced as undermining democratic checks and balances.

“The rule of law situation is bound to further and significantly worsen should the Law & Justice party remain in power,” said Laurent Pech, a professor of European law at Middlesex University in London.

Voting stations close at 9 p.m., when television broadcasters will publish an exit poll that will include projected results and the number of parliamentary seats won by each party. Turnout was 45.94% at 5 p.m., up from 38.97% at the same time during the 2015 ballot.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who has vowed to “re-Christianize Europe,” has declared the ballot Poland’s most important since the fall of communism three decades ago because it will determine whether the sweeping overhauls of the past four years take hold.

During the campaign, his government announced plans to nearly double the minimum wage -- living standards are now just over 70% of the EU average -- after boosting pensions and introducing a 500 zloty ($128) a month child subsidy that helped pull those left behind by decades of transformation above the poverty line. As a result, Poles are more upbeat than ever over their economic prospects.

“Law & Justice has my support,” said Mieczyslaw Krzemionka, 66, a retired lathe-operator from the southern town of Siemianowice Slaskie. “This is the first political party that has kept most of its election promises.”

The approach has helped keep annual economic growth at near 5% since 2017, while the government has bought out foreign banks and utilities and encouraged the creation of “national champion” businesses.

Most opinion surveys show Law & Justice on track to winning by a large margin, and potentially clinching a supermajority in the lower house of legislature that would allow it to overturn presidential vetoes. But with votes expected to be split almost evenly between the ruling party and opposition forces, it may lose its majority in the Senate, where opposition parties have pooled candidates. This would slow, but not stop, its ability to pass legislation.

As the government reaches out to more rural, less educated and poorer Poles, it’s also alienating younger voters as it vilifies the LGBTQ community and clashes with the European Commission, which has repeatedly sued Warsaw over violating the rule of law.

“Kaczynski’s ambition seems to be winning by a score that gives him a mandate to seek more radical changes,” said Marcin Duma, the head of IBRiS pollster. “A score that will be used in future arguments with Brussels and will be hard to dispute.”

(Updates with turnout in fifth paragraph.)

To contact the reporters on this story: Marek Strzelecki in Warsaw at mstrzelecki1@bloomberg.net;Dorota Bartyzel in Warsaw at dbartyzel@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andrea Dudik at adudik@bloomberg.net, Michael Winfrey, Wojciech Moskwa

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