WARSAW, Poland (AP) – Poles were voting Sunday in a parliamentary election that the ruling nationalist Law and Justice party was favored to win, buoyed by the popularity of its conservative agenda and generous social spending.
Concerns about democracy have made this one of the country’s most momentous elections since the fall of communism 30 years ago. Critics fear that an illiberal turn during the past four years of the party’s rule could become irreversible if it wins another four-year term.
More than 30 million voters were choosing lawmakers in the 460-seat lower house of parliament, the Sejm, and in the 100-seat Senate.
Law and Justice is the first party since the fall of communism to break with the austerity of previous governments, whose free-market policies took a moribund communist economy and transformed it into one of Europe’s most dynamic.
However, many Poles were left out in that transformation and inequalities grew, creating grievances. Law and Justice has skillfully addressed those concerns with popular programs, including one that gives away 500 zlotys ($125) to families per month per child, taking the edge off poverty for some and giving others more disposable income.
“I’m happy because finally, after so many years of communist captivity, we have real professionals in the government,” said Marek Paciorek, a voter in Warsaw who backed Law and Justice.
But Maciej Gorski, 20, was among some young voters in Warsaw who criticized the child subsidy as too expensive. He said he voted for the Civic Coalition to keep Poland from becoming a “one-party state.”
Critics fear that four more years for Law and Justice will reverse the democratic achievements of this Central European nation, citing an erosion of judicial independence and of minority rights since the party took power in 2015.
Polls over the past week gave Law and Justice between 40% and 45% support, with the second-strongest force, the centrist pro-EU Civic Coalition, whose biggest party is Civic Platform, around 25% of the vote. An alliance of three left-wing parties has polled between 10% and 15%.
The former Civic Platform prime minister, Donald Tusk, who is now the European Union’s top leader, voted Sunday in his hometown of Sopot.
“I am sure that, regardless of political tensions, democracy in Poland is very strong and stable,” he said. “But it is important that the winner does not try to destroy its opponents, but understand that after a win all political forces need to live side by side.”
In Warsaw, Law and Justice party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, considered the real power behind Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s government, cast his ballot, as did the Civic Coalition’s candidate for prime minister, Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska.
Law and Justice is hoping to win a majority of seats Sunday but possible coalition partners, if it needs any, could include two small parties if they win enough seats: the conservative agrarian Polish People’s Party or the far-right Confederation, which is openly anti-Semitic and depicts gay people as pedophiles.
Law and Justice’s overhaul of the judicial system has given the party unprecedented power over Poland’s prosecution system and courts. In reaction, the EU has repeatedly warned that the rule of law is threatened and has sanctioned the country, blunting some of the changes, but not all.
The ruling party has used taxpayer-funded public media, which is supposed to be nonpartisan, to hail the party’s achievements and denigrate political rivals.
It also ran a campaign targeting the LGBT movement, depicting it as a grave threat to the nation’s culture and children. Defending the traditional family in a country where most people are Roman Catholics is a message that has found favor with many.
Exit polls will be announced when the polls close Sunday at 9 p.m. (1900 GMT, 3 p.m. EDT) but official results are not expected for until early in the week.
Pietro DeCristofaro and Monika Scislowska contributed from Warsaw.