The populist Law and Justice party is sure to finish first, but a lot still hangs in the balance.
Warsaw, Poland – Sunday’s vote here is widely considered a landmark poll; one of the most significant in the country since its first semi-free elections were held 30 years ago.
1. Why is this election so important?
“This is the most important election since 1989,” said political scientist Anna Materska-Sosnowska, during a debate in Warsaw, echoing the voices of other analysts.
Since coming to power in 2015, the Law and Justice (PiS) party has ridden roughshod over a number of democratic checks and balances in Poland. It has recast the role of the state as a champion of conservative social values and a guarantor of economic welfare.
Sunday’s vote is seen as the first referendum on the sweeping changes of the past four years.
“In this election, we will decide the role of the state, the role of citizens, the role of the church, the media and non-governmental organisations,” said Materska-Sosnowska.
The election matters to voters and turnout may reach 60 percent. The highest turnout on record in Poland was 62.7 percent, in 1989, as the first non-Communists since the early postwar years came to power.
Beata Roguska, who is head of socio-political polling at the Centre for Public Opinion Research, told Al Jazeera that the level of political alienation was at its lowest since 1996, when measurements began.
“That means that people, more so than in the past two decades, feel like they are subjects in politics, that they have influence over affairs,” said Roguska.
2. What makes PiS so popular?
After eight years in opposition, PiS re-took power in 2015. A combination of nationalist rhetoric and generous welfare promises proved intoxicating to voters. It won the first absolute majority since Poland’s return to democracy.
Aided by a booming economy and a clampdown on VAT fraud, the party boosted social spending. Its flagship programme of monthly financial handouts for families with children, known as 500+, has a 95 percent take-up in some cities.
Many of its policies have gone against economic orthodoxy, but have been warmly received by supporters. The party also lowered the retirement age from 67 years to 60 for women and 65 for men, despite Poland’s ageing population. If re-elected, it has pledged to almost double the minimum wage.
“Poles are quite egalitarian. Many look back fondly on the good old days of the state providing social protection, even if cack-handedly,” Mikolaj Czesnik, director of the Institute of Social Sciences at SWPS University in Warsaw, told Al Jazeera.
“They want a return to a welfare state, and PiS gives them that illusion.”
PiS has also introduced an annual bonus retirement pension payment and a law which will exempt most workers under the age of 26 from paying income tax. While many voters were initially sceptical of PiS keeping its welfare pledges, they have come to accept higher levels of spending as the norm.
Moreover, PiS has challenged Poland’s convergence to Western liberal values, appealing to those who felt that the country’s identity and traditions had been endangered by European integration.
While many Poles watched aghast as PiS spearheaded what many saw as an unconstitutional overhaul of the judiciary, it has not turned away the party’s core voters.
“A share of citizens may think that more power concentrated in a single pair of hands will make politics more efficient,” Czesnik noted.
To cement support, PiS has refashioned publicly funded television and radio channels into a government mouthpiece. Airtime is used to boast about the government’s achievements and to discredit opposition efforts.
3. What happened to the liberal opposition?
The ineptness of Poland’s main liberal opposition, the Civic Platform (PO), has paved the way for PiS’ re-election.
After PO leader Donald Tusk left to become president of the European Council, the party went on to lose the 2015 election – and has since struggled to reinvent itself.
While PO frames itself as the ruling party’s main rival, most voters have trouble defining exactly what it stands for, especially as a member of the KO electoral alliance, and much of its support comes merely as resistance to PiS.
The opposition calls out the nationalism of PiS, but has offered little in the way of an alternative liberal narrative. “Lack of leadership and a lack of ideas,” Czesnik told Al Jazeera. “PiS sets the agenda, and the opposition merely reacts to it.”
Compared with the well-oiled campaign machine of PiS, PO’s efforts appear uninspiring, unprofessional and prone to gaffes. The party suffers from a lack of credibility, and its leader, Grzegorz Schetyna, remains the most distrusted of Polish politicians.
4. What are the big unknowns ahead of the vote?
The ruling Law and Justice party is set to win a sweeping majority. An average of polls over the past month give it 46 percent of votes, far outdoing its 2015 victory of 37.6 percent.
The main liberal opposition is expected to receive around 27 percent of votes. The left’s electoral alliance, currently absent from the parliamentary fray, is expected to return as the third-largest group with a projected 13 percent of the vote.
“Big cities have been mobilised like never before, which works in favour of PO and the left,” said Roguska of the Centre for Public Opinion Research.
In the current set-up, PiS is estimated to win 249 seats, comfortably more than the 231 it needs to rule with an absolute majority. However, the final tally will depend on how well it mobilises supporters and whether smaller parties make it over the five percent electoral threshold.
The agrarian PSL is currently expected to rake in seven percent, and the right-wing Confederation has been wavering around five percent. If they fail to clear the bar, Poland’s vote-counting system will distribute their votes; a major bonus for large parties such as PiS.
However, if PiS fails to gain an outright majority, the three main opposition groups have hinted at a coalition government to overtake what they see as creeping authoritarianism.
5. Will Poland’s relations with the EU improve after the vote?
Since joining the EU in 2004, Poland was held up by other bloc members as the Eastern European example of head-spinning economic growth and social progress.
Yet, over the past four years, relations have soured, mainly over judicial reforms which the European Commission has called a threat to the rule of law in Poland.
On October 10, the commission launched another proceeding into a proposed disciplinary system for judges, saying it puts them under political control.
Tensions are unlikely to subside, as Jarosław Kaczynski, the ruling party’s leader, has this week pledged deeper changes to the judicial system.
But some commentators suggest that the prospect of another four years of dealing with PiS may push European leaders towards a practical arrangement.
“There is growing awareness that PiS is not an oddity of Polish politics, but rather an important aspect of it. It may even represent something typically Polish,” said Czesnik.
Yet Poles remain as pro-European as ever, with a record-high 91 percent of Poles in support of the country’s EU membership. Among PiS voters the figure is 90 percent.
“The new government will have to take note of that to not lose supporters,” concluded Roguska.