Huge turnout in Poland’s decisive elections, highest since 1919

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(WARSAW, Poland) — From 7 a.m. onward Sunday, ballot boxes in Poland started filling up so fast that spare ones had to be dusted off and more ballots needed to be printed. No one had anticipated such long lines throughout the country.

Voting was to end at 9 p.m., but by law, polling stations stayed open to accept all who queued up, and the last one closed at 5 a.m. Monday. Some voters braved the night chill for up to eight hours to cast their vote.

This resulted in a record turnout of nearly 74% — highest voter turnout in Poland since 1919 and even higher than that of the first free elections after the fall of communism in 1989.

The high turnout confirmed that millions of Poles agree these parliamentary elections may have been the most decisive in the last three decades. Either they would allow the ruling right-wing populist Law and Justice (PiS) party to extend its eight-year hold on power for another four-year term, or they would opt for the return of a liberal democracy.

Late poll figures univocally indicate that opposition parties stand a realistic chance to form Poland’s next government.

The PiS conservatives currently in power took 36% of the vote, but that doesn’t translate into a seat majority in parliament, which would allow it to form a Cabinet. Latest polls show they would have 196 deputies in the 460-seat legislature as opposed to 249 seats won by the broad Civic Coalition of opposition parties led by Donald Tusk, former president of the European Council.

Sunday’s vote was a confrontation of two radically different visions of Poland’s future.

Conditioned by PiS propaganda that has continually been exploiting fears, PiS supporters claim only that party can secure Poland’s sovereignty and protect its interests. The threat of illegal migrants is perhaps the most unifying emotion binding the PiS electorate.

Supporters see PiS as their only protector from the alleged dominance of European Union bureaucrats in Brussels and their meddling in Polish affairs.

PiS voters turn a blind eye to the fact that the country began to drift toward authoritarian rule, authorities neglect the EU’s legal norms and the country continues on a collision course with the Union. Some €36 billion of EU COVID pandemic recovery funds have been frozen in a row over PiS judicial reforms. Many observers believe another PiS term would result in Poland leaving the European Union.

Germany, Poland’s by far most important trade partner and neighbor, is presented as another source of fear and the country is made out to be an ally of Russia, Poland’s greatest foe throughout centuries. But if it’s not the threat of German capital buying out Polish industry, then it’s the threat of moral decay.

In order to appeal to radical voters who accuse the government of extending excessive welfare to Ukrainian refugees, authorities cynically strained relations with Kyiv.

PiS voters declare the fear that if the party loses, the next government would take away the generous social benefits PiS guaranteed, such as 14 pensions, child care payments and early retirement.

Those who Sunday voted for parties forming the anti-PiS coalition declare they voted for a Poland securely rooted in the European Union.

In radio and TV street interviews, they say they want to see Poland mend its strained relations with neighbors, particularly Germany and Ukraine.

They do not want to see the Catholic Church influencing state affairs.

Sixty-four percent of those polled declare they’re in favor of same-sex marriages, and 70% want the new government to liberalize the current strict anti-abortion law.

It is uncertain whether Poland’s new government will be prepared to meet the more liberal postulates voters expect. The potential ruling coalition’s unifying factor is its pro-democratic, pro-EU, anti-PiS stance. Other than that, they often differ in their proposed policies and outlook. They’re a broad coalition composed of parties spanning from the far left to liberal conservative.

The Civic Coalition’s clear victory makes it the only faction in parliament able to constitute Poland’s new government. But first, Polish President Andrzej Duda, a PiS nominee, will need to designate a prime minister. Most likely, against the odds, he will name a PiS candidate. That candidate will have little realistic chance of being approved by parliament, and Poland may be faced with many weeks of squabbling and chaos. Constitutionalists predict it may not be until December that Poland gets its new government.

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