Voters in Poland have been casting their ballots in an election that many predict will change the balance of power. Campaigns were dominated by the refugee crisis, as well as economic and social issues.
After eight years of governments led by the centrist Civic Platform party, opinion polls suggested that the nationalist Law and Justice party would be becoming the strongest force in parliament at today's elections in Poland.
Four separate polls published late last week placed support for the Law and Justice party (PiS) in the lead with between 32 and 40 percent of the vote, while the incumbent Civic Platform (PO) trailed on 22 to 28 percent.
It is unclear how many parties could gain mandates in the 360-seat lower house of parliament called the Sejm. It could be anywhere between three and seven parties. Voters will also decide on 100 seats in the Senate, the upper chamber.
Despite a quarter-century of explosive growth since the end of communism, bread-and-butter issues coupled with fears sparked by Europe's migrant crisis dominated campaigning.
A battle between two ladies
With either of the two main parties poised to provide Poland's next leader, the only thing that seems guaranteed is that Poland will be led by a woman. Current Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz, leads the Civic Platform party, while her challenger Beata Szydlo is Law and Justice's candidate. Their campaigns were dominated by the effects of the refugee crisis, while also highlighting economic and social issues.
The election has largely become a two-horse race between Beata Szydlo (PiS, left) and Ewa Kopacz (PO, right), but smaller parties could still provide coalition partners
Szydlo's Law and Justice Party has promised to make more government funds available to families and pensioners, launch a new job creation program for young people and lower the retirement age. The Civic Platform-led government had raised it to 67. Szydlo had stated that she would address key issues in the first 100 days of her government.
Kopacz's Civic Platform, meanwhile, focused on the issue of raising the minimum wage. She sharply criticized the opposition's plans, and claimed they would seriously damage the country's finances. However, she has failed to ignite voter interest in the run-up to the elections, while her opponent Szydlo has worked the crowds.
Although the EU member's economy is scheduled to continue expanding and joblessness recently fell below the 10 percent mark, many Poles, especially young voters, said they were fed up with a perceived state of stagnation.
Szydlo's political brand
Szydlo's political opponents had long regarded her as merely a representative of the Law and Justice Party's chairman, political heavyweight and former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski. But, when she became the conservative party's candidate earlier this year, Szydlo mimicked James Bond to introduce herself to fellow party members.
"My name is Szydlo, Beata Szydlo," she said. "I have opinions of my own."
Szydlo gained momentum earlier in the year when she ran a winning presidential campaign for political greenhorn Andrzej Duda, ousting Civic Platform ally Bronislaw Komorowski in May.
The conservative party has taken a tough stance on the wave of refugees arriving in Europe, warning that the newcomers pose a threat to security and could undermine the social fabric of Poland, a largely conservative and highly Catholic EU state. Some analysts have stated that the Law and Justice Party could even end up governing alone.
Kopacz's track record
Kopacz's government has also shown some opposition to the unfolding effects of the influx in migrants, albeit softer in tone than her challengers. The doctor-turned-politician and her Civic Platform party have repeatedly rejected the notion of sticking to binding EU refugee quotas.
Despite continuing economic growth througout the recession, fears of stagnation have dominated much of the rhetoric in Poland's election (Warsaw pictured)
Kopacz had succeeded Donald Tusk as prime minister one year ago when he was named president of the European Council. Since then, she has had to fight the rumors of favoritism, stating that she was Tusk's choice because he hoped to maintain some control on Poland's governmental affairs. With Tusk's handling of the refugee crisis differing from Kopacz's government approach, the public opinion might somewhat have shifted to her benefit but is unlikely to turn the tide in her favor.
Controversies over social issues from gay rights to artificial insemination have also played a role in the growing frustration with her government. Increasing pressure from the European Union on climate change reform has also proven to be a key issue in Poland, one of the biggest coal-mining countries in Europe.
Barbara Nowacka's United Left party (ZL) has also been noted for its steady following, but is likely to score below 12 percent. The women's activist heads a coalition of liberal groupings that has been placed third in opinion surveys.
Punk rocker Pawel Kukiz, whose presidential bid in May scored a surprise 20 percent support, could steer his anti-establishment Kukiz'15 party also into third spot in parliament.
Either of the parties, as well as other contenders, could become coalition partners to form a government if necessary.
ss/rc (dpa, AFP, AP)