Poles poised to hand eurosceptic conservatives election victory

Warsaw (AFP) - Poles voted Sunday in a general election expected to end eight years of centrist rule and hand victory to eurosceptic conservatives who waged a campaign of anti-refugee rhetoric and welfare promises.

The opposition Law and Justice (PiS) party led by controversial ex-premier Jaroslaw Kaczynski commands an 8-to-12 point poll lead over the liberal, pro-European Civic Platform (PO) of Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz, according to the last opinion polls before the vote. Analysts say the PiS could even end up with an outright majority.

"After eight years in opposition, Kaczynski is making a big comeback," Warsaw-based political analyst Eryk Mistewicz told AFP of the right-wing leader, widely regarded as a political puppetmaster.

"Even if he doesn't manage a majority (231 seats), he will sweep up MPs from smaller parties," Mistewicz said.

Poland has become an east European heavyweight after a quarter-century of explosive growth and vastly-improved living standards since communism's demise, but bread-and-butter issues coupled with fears sparked by Europe's migrant crisis dominated the campaign.

Although the EU member's economy is forecast to expand by 3.5 percent this year and next, and joblessness recently fell below 10 percent, many voters believe time and money have been wasted and are fed up.

"That the economy kept growing during the (2008-9) global crisis wasn't thanks to the PO, but rather to the gigantic influx of EU funds and investment ahead of the Euro 2012 championships," Agnieszka, 40, a senior manager at a Warsaw construction company, who like many voters would only give a first name.

"The PO could have managed that money much better ... I'm voting for PiS," Agnieszka told AFP.

The liberal PO also never recovered from a 2014 eavesdropping scandal that discredited high-profile government ministers, analysts say, noting that the departure last year of party leader Donald Tusk to the post of EU council president set it adrift.

Kaczynski anointed Beata Szydlo as the PiS's choice for prime minister after she ran a victorious campaign for political greenhorn Andrzej Duda to become Poland's president, ousting PO ally Bronislaw Komorowski in May.

Szydlo, 52, has pledged to lower the pension age, introduce generous family benefits, impose taxes on banks and foreign-owned hypermarkets while cutting taxes for small and medium-sized businesses.

Her promises target the core conservative electorates in the poorer, devoutly Catholic east and public sector workers.

Critics however warn the moves could destabilise now robust public finances.

"I'm not a huge PO fan but I'm afraid of PiS's spending promises -- they could rack up a huge debt," Ewa, a 58-year-old nurse told AFP outside a Warsaw polling station.

Others vow not to vote, reflecting disillusion analysts say is growing among young Poles.

"I don't see any point -- it won't change anything, it never does," Tomasz, 28, a systems administrator for a large multinational corporation operating in Warsaw told AFP.

- 'Cholera, parasites' -

Kaczynski's campaign strategy also capitalised on fears linked to Europe's worst migrant crisis since World War II.

He claimed refugees were bringing "cholera to the Greek islands, dysentery to Vienna, various types of parasites" -- comments that critics said recalled the Nazi era.

His position is that Warsaw should financially support EU efforts to tackle the crisis, but not take in refugees, -- a view shared by nearly 60 percent of Poles according to surveys.

"I sympathise with innocent women, children -- they're fleeing a war. But I believe we should only help financially," an elegant-looking Warsaw pensioner Teresa told AFP.

"If richer European nations can't cope with refugees, how will we manage?" she said, adding PiS got her vote.

The right-wing party last held power in 2005-7, when Kaczynski governed in tandem with his twin brother, the late president Lech Kaczynski, who died in a government jet crash in western Russia in 2010.

The era of the Kaczynski twins in power was marked with internal political turmoil, triggered by their combative style and international tensions brought on by their anti-German and anti-Russian views as well as a row with the European Union over Poland's weighting in the bloc's decision-making.

Analysts warn a Kaczynski comeback could relaunch a similar political dynamic, possibly tinged with authoritarian overtones.

"If PiS end up governing alone with an allied president, Poland will become another Hungary," Polish Academy of Sciences Professor Radoslaw Markowski told AFP.

The anti-establishment Kukiz'15 party recently launched by punk rocker Pawel Kukiz and the PSL farmers' party are tipped as the PiS's most likely coalition partners.

Around mid-day voter turnout was 16.47 percent, election officials said. Polling stations are open to 9:00 pm (2000 GMT), with exit polls expected immediately after voting ends.