WARSAW, Poland (AP) — The majority of voters in Poland’s general election supported opposition parties that promised to reverse democratic backsliding and repair the nation’s relationship with allies, including the European Union and Ukraine, according to projections Monday.
After a bitter and emotional campaign, turnout was projected at almost 74%, the highest level in the country’s 34 years of democracy and surpassing the 63% who turned out in the historic 1989 vote that toppled co
mmunism. In the city of Wroclaw, the lines were so long that voting continued through the night until nearly 3 a.m. Young voters particularly came out in force to flood polling stations.
A so-called late exit poll by Ipsos suggested that voters had grown tired of the governing nationalist Law and Justice party after eight years of divisive policies that led to frequent street protests, bitter divisions within families and billions in funding held up by the EU over rule of law violations.
It was among the important elections in an EU country this year, and the results have been anxiously awaited in Brussels, Berlin and other capitals by observers hoping that a step-by-step dismantling of checks and balances could be halted before Poland could make a turn toward authoritarianism that would be hard to reverse.
Another term for Law and Justice would have been seen as a bad omen in Brussels, which has to contend with Hungary, where democratic erosion has gone much further under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. New concerns arose after the leftist pro-Russia and Orbán-ally Robert Fico won an election in Slovakia.
The outcome could also affect ties with neighboring Ukraine, which Poland has supported in the war against Russia’s full-scale invasion. The good relations soured in September over Ukraine grain entering and affecting Poland’s market.
The Ipsos poll showed that three centrist opposition parties that campaigned on a promise to reverse the illiberal drift of the government had together secured 249 seats in the 460-seat lower house of parliament, or Sejm, a clear majority.
“I am really overjoyed now,” Magdalena Chmieluk, a 43-year-old accountant, said Monday morning. The opposition “will form a government and we will finally be able to live in a normal country, for real.”
The opposition parties faced many disadvantages in contesting the election, said Jacek Kucharczyk, president of the Institute of Public Affairs, a Warsaw think tank.
The governing party mobilized its administrative resources to help itself, including by controlling the election administration and by an unfair division of votes in electoral districts, he said.
“This success is even more remarkable knowing that the whole playing field was uneven. The electoral system was really tilted toward the government,” Kucharczyk told The Associated Press. “You could say that the opposition had to fight this election with one hand tied behind its back and they still won.”
Still, Poles on Monday were facing weeks of political uncertainty. Law and Justice won more votes than any single party and said it would try to build a new government led by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.
“No matter how you look at it, we won,” Law and Justice campaign manager Joachim Brudziński said Monday in an interview on RMF FM radio.
President Andrzej Duda, an ally of Law and Justice, must call the first session of the new parliament within 30 days of the election and designate a prime minister to try to build a government. In the meantime, the current government will remain in a caretaker role.
The tradition in the democratic era has been for the president to first tap someone from the party with the most votes, but he isn’t required to do so.
Duda, during a visit to Rome on Monday, wouldn’t comment on the next steps since final results haven’t been announced. He told reporters that he was happy about the large turnout and the peaceful nature of the election at a time of war across the border in Ukraine and “hybrid attacks from Belarus.”
It wasn’t clear how Law and Justice could realistically hold onto power, unless it managed to win over some lawmakers from opposition parties, something it did in the past to maintain the thin parliamentary majority it held for eight years. But that seemed unlikely given the large number that would need to change allegiances.
The leader of the agrarian PSL party, a frequent kingmaker in past governments, ruled out cooperating with Law and Justice, known in Poland as PiS, after running with the Third Way coalition.
“Those who voted for us want change, want a change of government, want PiS removed from power,” Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz said on RMF FM.
An updated Ipsos poll on Monday afternoon showed Law and Justice with 36.1% of the votes cast; the opposition Civic Coalition, led by former European Council President Donald Tusk, with 31%; the centrist Third Way coalition with 14%; the Left party with 8.6%; and the far-right Confederation with 6.8%.
The electoral commission said it expected to report the final result on Tuesday.
On Sunday evening, Tusk declared that it was the end of Law and Justice rule and that a new era had begun for Poland.
But not all rejoiced over the projected outcome.
“I am disappointed with the results, but I accept the democratic choice,” said Elżbieta Szadura-Urbańska, a 58-year-old psychologist who voted for Law and Justice. “I think my party is also democratic.”
Others were concerned about possible obstacles to a smooth transfer of power.
The public television broadcaster, TVP, was reporting on Monday that Law and Justice had won the election.
Cezary Tomczyk, vice chairman of Tusk’s party, said the governing party would do everything it could to try to maintain power. He called on it to accept the election result, saying it was the will of the people to give power to the opposition.
“The nation has spoken,” Tomczyk said.
Even if the opposition parties take power, they will face difficulties in putting forward their agenda. The president will have the power to veto new legislation, while the constitutional court, whose role is to ensure that new laws don’t violate the basic law, is loyal to the current governing party, Kucharczyk said.
“Fixing the relations with the EU in particular will require domestic changes, namely restoring the independence of the judiciary, restoring the rule of law, which is a condition for the EU to release the funding for Poland,” Kucharczyk said. “It will be a very, very prolonged and difficult process.”
Pietro De Cristofaro, Kwiyeon Ha and Rafal Niedzielski in Warsaw, and Raf Casert in Brussels, contributed to this report.