Poland is holding a high-stakes election on Sunday that has energized many voters, with the ruling conservative nationalist party pitted against opposition groups that accuse it of eroding the foundations of the democratic system.
The ruling party, Law and Justice, has a devoted base of supporters in the Central European nation of 38 million who appreciate its defense of Catholic traditions and its social spending on pensioners and families with children. The payments have given relief to poor people.
But support for the party has shrunk since the last election in 2019 — when it won nearly 44% of the vote — amid high inflation, allegations of cronyism and bickering with European allies. Law and Justice has been polling in recent weeks at over 30%, making it the single most popular party but still at risk of losing its majority in parliament.
In that case, some speculate that Law and Justice could need the support of the far-right Confederation party to govern, though both parties campaigned saying that was not an option.
Many Poles feel like it is the most important election since 1989 when a new democracy was born after decades of communism. The health of the nation’s constitutional order, its legal stance on LGBTQ+ rights and abortion, and the foreign alliances of a country that has been a crucial ally to Ukraine are all at stake.
Polling in recent days suggested that opposition parties have a chance to deprive the governing populists of an unprecedented third term in a row.
The Civic Coalition, Third Way and New Left have campaigned on promises to repair the rule of law and ties with the EU and other allies if they manage to gain power. The final outcome of the vote could be ultimately decided by the small margins gained or lost by the smaller parties.
Tomasz Druzynski, an information technology specialist, voted in Warsaw saying he believes change is possible.
“I believe in it and I think this is the first chance in eight years to change something. And I hope this change will come,” Druzynski said.
The continued growth of Poland’s dynamic economy is also on voters’ minds.
Jan Molak, an 80-year-old supporter of the ruling party, credited it with creating a more just economic system and the development boom of recent years.
“Things are getting better and better,” he said after voting in Warsaw.
Others see economic threats in the way the party has governed and believe the high social spending has helped to fuel inflation.
There is also a high level of state ownership in the Polish economy, and the ruling party has built up a system of patronage, handing out thousands of jobs and contracts to its loyalists. Some fear over time that will cause damage.
The EU, whose funding has driven much of the economic transformation, is also withholding billions of euros in funding to Poland over what it views as democratic erosion.
Political experts say the election will not be fully fair after eight years of governance by Law and Justice, which has eroded checks and balances to gain more control over state institutions, including the courts, public media and the electoral process itself.
Retired nurse Barbara Burs voted early in Warsaw, saying she cast her vote to change the government because she wants a better country for her children and grandchildren — a “just and undivided Poland.”
The fate of Poland’s relationship with Ukraine is also at stake. The Confederation party campaigned on an anti-Ukraine message, accusing the country of lacking gratitude to Poland for its help in the war.
While Poland has been a staunch ally of Ukraine and a transit hub for Western weapons, relations chilled over the Ukrainian grain that entered Poland’s market.
Some 29 million Poles aged 18 and above are eligible to vote. They are choosing 460 members of the lower house, or Sejm, and 100 for the Senate for four-year terms.
A referendum on migration, the retirement age and other issues is being held simultaneously. Opposition groups oppose the referendum, accusing the government of seeking to tap into emotions to mobilize its electorate in the close and unpredictable race. Some called on voters to boycott the referendum.
At one polling station on the southern edge of Warsaw, people could be seen apparently declining to vote in the referendum, casting just two ballots into the assigned boxes. Voters were offered three ballots, one for the Sejm, one for the Senate and one for the referendum.
More than 31,000 voting stations across Poland are open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Over 400 voting stations will operate abroad. In a sign of the huge emotions being generated by the vote, more than 600,000 Poles registered to vote abroad.
On Friday, the Foreign Ministry fired its spokesman after he said that not all the votes cast abroad could be counted before the deadline for submitting them, which would cause them to be invalidated. The ministry said he was dismissed for spreading “false information.”
Exit poll results by global polling research firm Ipsos will be announced after polls close.
Individual parties need to get at least 5% of votes to win seats in parliament, coalitions need at least 8% of votes.