Poles poised to hand euroskeptic conservatives victory

Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz.
PHOTO: Reuters

WARSAW, Poland - Poles began voting Sunday in a general election expected to end eight years of centrist government, with surveys showing the euroskeptic conservatives firmly ahead after running a campaign of anti-refugee rhetoric and welfare promises.

The opposition Law and Justice (PiS) party led by controversial ex-premier Jaroslaw Kaczynski commands an 8-to-12 point poll lead over the liberal, pro-European Civic Platform (PO) of Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz. Analysts say the PiS could even end up governing alone.

"After eight years in opposition, Kaczynski is making a big comeback," Warsaw-based political analyst Eryk Mistewicz told AFP of the undisputed right-wing leader, widely regarded as a political puppet-master.

"Even if he doesn't manage a majority (231 seats) he will sweep up MPs from smaller parties."

Despite a quarter-century of explosive growth and vastly-improved living standards since communism's demise, bread-and-butter issues coupled with fears sparked by Europe's migrant crisis have dominated campaigning in the regional heavyweight of 38 million people.

Although the EU member's economy is forecast to expand by 3.5 per cent this year and next, and joblessness recently fell below 10 per cent, many voters believe time and money have been wasted and are fed up.

"That the economy kept growing during the (2008-9) global crisis wasn't thanks to the PO, but rather to the gigantic influx of EU funds and investment ahead of the Euro 2012 championships," Agnieszka, 40, a senior manager at a Warsaw construction company, told AFP.

"The PO could have managed that money much better," said Agnieszka, declining to reveal her full name. "Like most Poles, I think we need change, so I'm voting for PiS."

The PO also never recovered from a 2014 eavesdropping scandal that discredited key high-profile government ministers, analysts say.

They also note that the departure last year of centrist leader Donald Tusk to the post of EU council president left his struggling Civic Platform in the lurch.

"I'm very disappointed with the PO - too many scandals, too few results, so I'm voting for a change, for PiS," Warsaw mechanic Jacek Jaworski, 53, told AFP outside a polling station.

Kaczynski anointed Beata Szydlo the PiS's candidate for prime minister after she ran a winning presidential campaign for political greenhorn Andrzej Duda, ousting PO ally Bronislaw Komorowski in May.

Szydlo, 52, has vowed to lower the pension age, introduce generous family benefits, impose taxes on banks and foreign-owned hypermarkets while cutting taxes for small and medium-sized businesses.

Her promises target core PiS electorates in the poorer, devoutly Catholic east known as "Polska B" and public sector workers.

Critics warn the moves could destabilize public finances, which are now in good shape. Some voters echo those concerns.

"I'm not a huge PO fan but I'm afraid of PiS's spending promises - they could rack up a huge debt," Ewa, 58, a Warsaw nurse who did not give her surname, told AFP before voting Sunday.

'Cholera, parasites'

Kaczynski also scored political capital by playing up fears linked to Europe's worst migrant crisis since World War II.

He claimed refugees were bringing "cholera to the Greek islands, dysentery to Vienna, various types of parasites" in comments that critics said recalled the Nazi era.

Warsaw should financially support EU efforts to tackle the crisis, but not take in refugees, he says. Surveys show nearly 60 per cent of Poles share his views.

"I sympathize with innocent women, children - they're fleeing a war. But I believe we should only help financially," elegant pensioner Teresa, who declined to provide her surname, told AFP in Warsaw's leafy Mokotow district.

"If richer European nations can't cope with refugees, how will we manage?" she said, adding PiS got her vote.

The party last held power in 2005-7, when Kaczynski governed in tandem with his twin brother, the late president Lech Kaczynski. He died in a presidential jet crash in Smolensk, western Russia, in 2010.

The era of twin power was marked by internal political turmoil triggered by their combative style and international tensions brought on by their anti-German and anti-Russian views as well as a row with the European Union over Poland's weighting in EU decision-making.

Analysts warn a Kaczynski comeback could relaunch a similar political dynamic, possibly tinged with authoritarian overtones.

"If PiS end up governing alone with an allied president, Poland will become another Hungary," Polish Academy of Sciences Professor Radoslaw Markowski told AFP.

Other parties that could enter parliament include the United Left, the Nowoczesna (Modern) liberals, the libertarian Korwin group and leftist Razem (Together).

Polling stations are open from 7:00 a.m. (0600 GMT) to 9:00 p.m. (2000 GMT) Sunday. Exit polls are expected immediately after voting ends.