Poland’s Law and Justice party wins election but loses control of upper house
Voter turnout was the highest since 1989
Warsaw — Poland’s governing populist party won a weekend election, official results showed on Monday, retaining a parliamentary majority that could allow it to pursue a judicial reform agenda that has put it at loggerheads with the EU.
The triumph by the Law and Justice party followed a campaign focused on a raft of new welfare measures coupled with attacks on LGBT rights and western values.
“We have obtained the mandate to continue our good change, to continue our policy, to continue to change Poland,” said party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
Since the party took office in 2015, it has in many ways upended Polish politics by limiting liberal democracy through a string of controversial court reforms that have stoked tension with the EU, as well as through its monopolisation of public media, among other measures.
Kaczynski has focused on crafting a central European brand of democracy similar to that forged by nationalist Viktor Orban in Hungary, according to observers.
The Law and Justice scored 43.59% of the popular vote, for 235 seats, according to full official results presented by the state elections commission on Monday.
Up to now it controlled 239 of the 460 seats in the lower house of parliament.
The opposition Civic Coalition (KO) scored 27.40% support for 134 seats. It draws support mainly from urban voters upset by the ruling party’s divisive politics, controversial judicial reforms and graft scandals.
The Law and Justice party lost control of the senate, or upper house, taking 48 of the 100 seats, something analysts said would provide a check on the party's legislative drives.
The party is expected to continue welfare spending, including a popular new child allowance along with pension hikes as it eyes the May 2020 presidential election, according to Warsaw University political analyst Stanislaw Mocek.
“They will leave the most controversial reforms (judicial, media) for after the presidential election,” he said, referring to court reforms that risk undermining judicial independence and the rule of law, something likely to further antagonise Brussels.
Condemning Kaczynski’s anti-LGBT drive and close church ties, but sharing his welfare goals, the left returned to parliament after a four-year hiatus with 12.56% of the vote and 49 seats.
Confederation, a new far-right libertarian coalition known for its anti-EU views, also made it over the five percent threshold to enter parliament with 6.81% for 11 seats.
The PSL farmers/Kukiz 15 alliance took 8.55% of the vote for 27 seats.
In office since 2015, Kaczynski’s party has focused on poorer rural voters, coupling family values with the introduction of welfare state spending, tax breaks for low-income earners and hikes to pensions and the minimum wage.
Kaczynski has tapped into a populist backlash against liberal elites, similar to trends in Western Europe and the US.
Sovereignty versus federalism
Kaczynski has also stoked deep social division by attacking sexual minorities and rejecting Western liberal values, all with the tacit blessing of Poland's influential Catholic Church which holds sway over rural voters.
He is among several populist leaders in the European Union seeking greater national sovereignty over the federalism championed by France and Germany.
The Law and Justice party has also sought favour with the Trump administration in a bid to reinforce Poland's security withing the Nato defence alliance and as a bulwark against Russia, its Soviet-era master with whom tensions still run high.
Critics attribute strong economic growth under the ruling party to favourable external factors.
A tight labour market in the EU country of 38-million people saw it become the world’s top temporary migrant labour destination in 2017, according to the OECD.
Turnout for Sunday’s election was 61.74%, the highest since Poland shed communism in 1989.