WARSAW — It’s squeaky bum time in the EU’s fifth most populous country.
After months of bitter campaigning, scandals, gaffes, attacks and just one debate, the political landscape ahead of Sunday’s general election is pretty much where it was a year ago. Two big parties — the ruling nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party and the centrist Civic Coalition — are far ahead and a clutch of smaller parties are straggling far behind.
It’s a testament to the very deep divisions in Polish society.
The government’s backers see the opposition as traitorous sell-outs willing to hand Poland off the Germany (or even Russia) and to turn Poland into an irreligious, gay-friendly dystopia subservient to Brussels and filled with Muslim immigrants.
Opposition backers warn that if Law and Justice wins a third term in office, it will succeed in throttling what’s left of Polish democracy by completing its takeover of the courts, attack independent media and isolate Poland from its partners in the European Union.
1. What do the polls show?
POLITICO’s Poll of Polls currently has PiS at 37 percent while the Civic Coalition is at 30 percent.
Three smaller parties are also likely to make it into the next parliament.
POLAND NATIONAL PARLIAMENT ELECTION POLL OF POLLS
For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.
The center-right Third Way is at 11 percent and the Left is at 10 percent. Both have pledged to join with Civic Coalition to oust PiS from power.
Far-right Confederation is at 9 percent — it’s the only possible coalition partner for Law and Justice, even though its leaders say they won’t do that. The two parties have similar nationalist views, but their economic policies are very different.
2. Why is everyone watching the small parties?
The rules are that parties need to win 5 percent of the vote to get seats in parliament, but coalitions need 8 percent.
Third Way — which unites the Poland 2050 party started by TV host Szymon Hołownia and the agrarian Polish People’s Party — faces that hurdle. If it falls short, the remaining parties in parliament will get a boost, and that would likely put PiS very close to a stand-alone majority.
“How smaller parties will fare is crucial,” said Ben Stanley, an associate professor at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw.
3. Are the elections free and fair?
Free maybe, but not very fair.
The government is boosting social spending, and held country-wide picnics where government officials got to hobnob with voters — all financed by the taxpayer. It is also promising rewards to localities with the highest vote total — a contest that only applies in the smaller towns that tend to be strong PiS backers.
The state-controlled media is firmly in the government’s camp, despite being obliged by law to be impartial. A chain of newspapers owned by state refiner Orlen is also backing PiS — and papers are even rejecting advertising from opposition parties.
Finally, the government has put forward a referendum with four questions that are designed to harm the opposition and don’t actually reflect any real policies. The one on migration reads: “Do you support the admission of thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa, according to the forced relocation mechanism imposed by European bureaucracy?”
The referendum has no spending limit, so state-owned corporations are pouring vast sums into the campaign. The Polish Post Office even sent leaflets to customers explaining the referendum and helpfully showing a mock ballot marked four times “no” — reflecting the government’s view.
Finally, the vote count will be supervised by judges appointed by the ruling party.
As of Friday evening, a grouping of foreign election observers was complaining that they still hadn’t received accreditation from the electoral commission to watch the vote.
4. What are the mechanics of voting?
All campaigning ends at midnight Friday and media stop all political reporting.
Polls open at 7 a.m. for about 29 million registered voters.
More than 600,000 are registered outside the country — a record. However, a new arbitrary rule limits vote counting in foreign locations to 24 hours; if the count is not finished by then all the ballots in that voting precinct are scrapped. Most foreign voters back the opposition.
The polls close at 9 p.m. and the media will immediately flash the result of exit polls — which cannot be published while voting continues — which historically have been fairly accurate.
The vote count begins immediately, and the national electoral commission will announce a running total. By Monday morning there should be a pretty good idea of the official vote winner.
5. How is a government formed?
The first move will belong to PiS-allied President Andrzej Duda.
In line with Poland’s constitution, the president is free to nominate a prime minister. Duda said traditionally the president chooses a candidate from the overall election winner — which is almost certain to be Law and Justice.
The newly nominated prime minister then has to win an absolute majority of the 460-member Sejm, the lower house of parliament.
If the nominee fails, parliament takes over and has 14 days to nominate a new PM candidate who then has to win another confidence vote.
If that ends in no government, the ball is back in the president’s court and he has 14 days to pick another nominee. This time the nominee only needs a simple majority in the confidence vote.
6. What happens if no government is formed?
Running through the efforts to win a parliamentary majority could take a couple of months. If that fails, Duda cuts short the parliamentary term and calls a new election, which has to take place within 45 days.
That means a new election — and another bitter campaign — sometime in the spring of 2024.