Poland is gearing up for a parliamentary election on Sunday, the result of which is likely to have a major impact on the country’s direction, and polls suggest the race is too close to call.
The incumbent Law and Justice (PiS) government is seeking a third consecutive term in office, fighting a challenge from the main opposition coalition led by the former prime minister and European Council president Donald Tusk.
In a vicious and largely negative campaign, PiS has portrayed Tusk’s coalition as traitors to Poland, while Tusk has said the vote is the last chance to save democracy in Poland after eight years of PiS rolling back democratic freedoms.
Tusk has promised to relax strict anti-abortion laws and improve rights for LGBTQ+ people, and has also promised to restore relations with Brussels, which have been damaged over concerns that the PiS government has undermined the rule of law in Poland.
Tusk speaking at an election event in Katowice on Thursday. Photograph: Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto/Shutterstock
Saturday is a day of campaign silence, meaning candidates made their final pitches to voters on Friday.
PiS, which campaigned on a platform of ensuring Poland’s security and keeping out migrants, had a setback on Tuesday when two of the country’s top military commanders resigned, apparently irritated by the politicisation of the army.
Polls have shown PiS hovering at between 31% and 36% in the polls, with Tusk’s Civic Coalition trailing a few percentage points behind. The outcome is likely to depend on the performance of several smaller parties and the election may be followed by a period of tense coalition negotiations or even political deadlock, with neither side able to form a workable coalition.
Tusk will be hoping he has the seats to form a government together with two other opposition forces, the centre-right Third Way coalition and the leftwing Lewica. PiS, meanwhile, may need to rely on wooing elements of Confederation, a collection of far-right nationalists, libertarians and monarchists.
Ben Stanley, a sociologist and political scientist at SWPS University in Warsaw, said: “There’s a lot of uncertainty and variation in the polls. If the recent polls are more or less right, we’re shaping up to have no clear winner.”
Ultranationalist Confederation party candidate Sławomir Mentzen addresses supporters in Lublin last week. Photograph: Wojtek Radwański/AFP/Getty Images
In an effort to boost turnout and circumvent campaign spending regulations, the government has organised a referendum to coincide with the election, asking voters a series of leading questions about subjects such as migration and raising the retirement age. It has also offered a series of cash prizes for various causes to reward high turnouts in small towns and villages, where PiS support is traditionally higher.
The PiS-aligned president, Andrzej Duda, called on Poles to vote in the referendum in an address on public television.
“I strongly encourage you to express your opinion on extremely important issues regarding our security, economic and social policy. It is Poles who should decide on the most important issues concerning our homeland,” Duda said.
PiS has portrayed Tusk as unpatriotic and a puppet for foreign interests. The party’s chair, Jarosław Kaczyński, has described him as “the personification of evil”.
Public television is strongly slanted towards PiS despite an obligation to be neutral, but has been legally required to give rare access to the airwaves to opposition politicians before the vote. In a televised debate on Monday, Tusk took on the prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, with both lead candidates looking nervous and out of sorts.
On Thursday, Tomasz Grodzki, the speaker of the upper house of parliament and part of Civic Coalition, used a televised address to condemn the PiS government, focusing on the army resignations. “They were educated in the tradition of the army being apolitical but have apparently had enough of attempts to change the civilian control over the army into party control,” he said.
Grodzki also covered traditional electoral ground such as inflation, waiting times for healthcare and education. “The time for changes has come,” he said.
Poland’s biggest liberal newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, called on the electorate to vote PiS out of office, in an editorial published on Friday. The newspaper, which has always been strongly critical of PiS, said the vote was as important as, if not more important than, the election of 1989 that ushered in the end of communism in Poland.
“Another Poland is within reach. A cheerful, friendly, cordial and open Poland, where the authorities do not separate themselves from the citizens with police cordons and do not spread hatred,” it said.