Poland appears poised to hand conservatives victory amid anti-refugee rhetoric

Poland's main opposition party Law and Justice's leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski smiles during his speech at the parliamentary election meeting with citizens of Torun, Poland on Oct 21, 2015.
Poland's main opposition party Law and Justice's leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski smiles during his speech at the parliamentary election meeting with citizens of Torun, Poland on Oct 21, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS

WARSAW (AFP) - Poland seems poised to end eight years of centrist government in general elections on Sunday (Oct 25), with surveys showing the opposition conservatives firmly ahead after running a campaign of anti-refugee rhetoric and welfare promises.

The eurosceptic 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.

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 dominated campaigning.

Although the EU member's economy is scheduled 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. She declined to provide her surname.

"The PO could have managed that money much better," she said, adding "like most Poles, I think we need change, so I'm voting for PiS."

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 destabilise public finances.

"After eight years in opposition, Kaczynski is making a big comeback," Warsaw-based political analyst Eryk Mistewicz told AFP, adding that "even if he doesn't manage a majority (231 seats) he will sweep up MPs from smaller parties."

Punk rocker Pawel Kukiz, whose May presidential bid scored a surprise 20 per cent support, could steer his anti-establishment Kukiz'15 party into third spot in parliament. Analysts tip it as the PiS's likely partner.

Warsaw University political scientist Anna Materska-Sosnowska also points to the PSL farmers' party - the PO's junior coalition partner in the outgoing administration - as another possible PiS ally.

- '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.

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 eurosceptic, anti-German and anti-Russian views.

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

Sunday's election is "about whether liberal democracy will survive in Poland," Polish Academy of Sciences Professor Radoslaw Markowski told AFP.

"If PiS end up governing alone with an allied president, Poland will become another Hungary." 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 0600 to 2000 GMT Sunday (2pm Sunday to 4am Monday Singapore time). Exit polls are expected immediately after voting ends.