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Poland's eurosceptic move to the right may cause friction with EU

Poland's conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party victory in elections has prompted concerns of bumpy relations between Warsaw and Brussels. Official results show PiS took more votes than any other group.

The conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) has won Sunday's parliamentary elections in Poland with 37.6 percent of the vote, according to the country's National Election Commission.

Incumbent Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz's party Civic Platform, which has governed for the past eight years, came in second with 24.1 percent of the vote.

It was not immediately clear whether the result would allow PiS, led by eurosceptic Jaroslaw Kaczynski, to rule with an absolute majority. Exit polls released earlier on Monday showed the party picking up 232 out of 460 seats in the lower house, but a final tally of how many seats each party won is only expected on Tuesday.

The preliminary official results showed only three other parties making it into parliament: the conservative Kukiz15 movement led by led by rock star Pawel Kukiz with 8.8 percent; a new pro-business party Modern Poland with 7.6 percent and the Polish Peasants Party with 5.1 percent.

Leftist parties were voted out of parliament for the first time since the collapse of communism in 1989, signaling a strong shift to the right in Poland that could foreshadow what is in store for leftists and centrist parties in the rest of Europe.

Even if PiS falls a little short of an absolute majority, they are likely to be able to pick up members of parliament from other parties from the right, or find a small coalition partner that will allow them to exert strong powers to push the party's agenda. President Andrzej Duda, elected earlier this year, is also from PiS.

Trouble with the EU

With PiS at the helm, EU integration and solidarity looks to be entering troubled waters.

"Things are going to get much more difficult," a senior EU official charged with getting the EU's 28 members to compromise summed up the election results.

EU officials remember the last time Kaczynski's PiS held power between 2005 and 2007, when Poland held up the Lisbon Treaty, sought greater voting power in the EU and obstructed diplomacy with Russia.

That period stood in sharp contrast to eight years of rule by the centrist, pro-EU, pro-market Civic Platform that was knocked from power despite ushering in a period of stability and economic prosperity - albeit unevenly spread.

Kaczynski, a former prime minister, leads the party but has tapped Beata Szydlo, 52, to be the PiS's choice for prime minister. That choice prompted concern Szydlo would be the public face while Kaczynski, a controversial figure whose term as prime minister was marked by domestic political turmoil and tense international relations, pulls the strings behind the curtain.

This time around, there is a host of new issues that could keep the eurosceptic Kaczynski at loggerheads with the EU - especially Germany and France.

As Europe faces the largest refugee crisis since World War II, Kaczynski has stoked nationalism and fear in conservative Poland claiming refugees will bring disease and upset the country's social fabric. He could work with the Visegrad group of former communist countries - the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary - as well as Romania and Bulgaria to block EU plans for mandatory quotas for refugees.

There are worries in EU circles that Poland, which relies on coal-burning for the overwhelming majority of its electricity generation, could upset a common position for the bloc at upcoming climate talks in Paris. There's also concern over central bank independence and fiscal policy.

The party's ardently pro-NATO stance combined with its fervent anti-Russia position could also impact the complex relations between the EU and Moscow.

Relations between Brussels and Warsaw could also be undermined by tense personal relations. Kaczynski is a longtime rival of European Council President Donald Tusk, a former leader of the Civic Platform and former Polish prime minister.

PiS Policies

The PiS has an ambitious agenda to cut taxes for small and medium-sized businesses, lower the pension age after Civic Platform raised it, increase family benefits, lower taxes on families, and increase taxes on banks and large foreign-owned supermarkets.

The party, which opposes Poland's adoption of the euro currency, also wants to increase public spending and get the central bank to pump 350 billion zlotys (82 billion euros or $91 billion) over the next six years into the economy - a policy that could roil markets and create concern over central bank independence, but could also stimulate continued economic growth.

For now, rating agency Standard and Poor's has kept Poland's A- rating with a positive outlook, but said that PiS policies could hurt investor confidence.

"We could revise the outlook to stable if we saw reversals regarding fiscal consolidation, macroeconomic management, or monetary policy," said S&P lead analyst on Poland, Felix Winnekens.

Another Orban?

Some political analysts and policy makers are concerned Poland could turn into another Hungary, whose Prime Minister Viktor Orban has taken the country down an authoritarian path.

PiS has signaled that with enough support it could change the constitution. Some worry that Kaczynski may go that route in order to expand PiS' influence over the central bank, media, judiciary and other state bodies.

"Many party leaders have talked of wanting deeper change in Poland, so, if we want to deliver that, changes to the constitution are vital," the party's spokesman on economic affairs, Zbigniew Kuzmiuk, said after the victory.

cw/jil (AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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