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 Poland’s illiberal turn could become irreversible if the party 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 more disposable income to all regardless of wages.
“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.
However, critics fear that four more years for Law and Justice will reverse the democratic achievements in this Central European nation. They cite 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, around 25%. An alliance of three left-wing parties has polled between 10% and 15%.
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, the conservative agrarian Polish People’s Party and Confederation, a far-right group that 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 European Union 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 pump out propaganda hailing the party’s achievements and denigrating 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.
Polling stations close at 9 p.m. (1900 GMT). Exit polls will be announced then although official results are not expected until early in the week.
Pietro DeCristofaro contributed reporting from Warsaw.