Donald Tusk
Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister addresses supporters at his party headquarters in Warsaw, Poland, Sunday, Oct. 15, 2023. Image Credit: AP

Warsaw: Poland’s liberal opposition on Monday celebrated exit polls showing it had won a parliamentary majority in elections on Sunday which saw the highest turnout since the fall of Communism.

The surprise result would put an end to eight years of rule by the populist Law and Justice (PiS) party during which relations with the European Union and neighbouring Ukraine have fallen to new lows.

The opposition, led by former EU chief Donald Tusk, had billed the parliamentary elections as the “last chance” to save democracy.

“Democracy has won,” he declared late on Sunday, saying a “grim” era had ended.

For voters in the capital Warsaw, where support for nationalists is traditionally lower, the outcome heralded major change.

“Women’s rights are absolutely crucial to me and I really hope something will change here,” Aleksandra Metlewicz, an interior designer, told AFP.

The 33-year-old said she wanted “good times to come back, in place of the Middle Ages” in which she said Poland was stuck.

‘More women than men’

The PiS government is based on traditional Catholic values and Poland has the EU’s most stringent abortion laws.

Tusk has promised to liberalise them.

This issue, according to analysts, prompted an unprecedented mobilisation among women and helped tip the balance in favour of the liberal opposition parties.

“Until recently, half of women said they would not vote. Now these exit polls actually show more women than men voted,” said Justyna Kajta, a sociologist at SWPS University in Warsaw.

poland polls
Wladyslaw Kosiniak-Kamysz, left, and Szymon Holownia, leaders of the Third Way, a coalition of the centrist Poland 2050 party and the agrarian Polish People's Party greet supporters at their electoral headquarters in Warsaw, Poland, Sunday, Oct. 15, 2023. Image Credit: AP

For Kajta, the turnout among women, predicted at 73.7 percent, was the main “positive surprise” of the election.

Projections based on preliminary results and exit polls by Ipsos on Monday showed Tusk’s Civic Coalition could win 161 seats in the 460-seat parliament.

Two smaller parties which are potential allies, Third Way and Left, were set to win 57 and 30 seats respectively.

That would give the three together a majority of 248.

‘Very happy’

For eight years, Law and Justice has put Poland on a collision course with the EU, with controversial judicial reforms, a refusal to take in migrants and hardline abortion policies.

PiS increased nationalist rhetoric in its campaign and even entered a row with its war-torn neighbour Ukraine, despite huge Polish solidarity to help Kyiv in the face of the Russian attack.

To the opposition electorate, ending the PiS reign would restore Poland’s reputation on international stage.

“I believe that now all these (international) ties will improve and normalise. But this will take some time,” Krzysztof Dabrowski, a pensioner from Warsaw, told AFP.

Tusk served as Poland’s prime minister between 2007 and 2014 and as European Council president between 2014 and 2019.

He has pledged to restore relations with Brussels if he returns to power and to unblock the EU funds frozen due to the ongoing standoff over the rule of law in Poland.

Many Poles queued late into the evening to cast their vote, in what all parties billed as the most important election since the fall of Communism.

While the results appear to give the liberal opposition a better chance of forming the next government, there was still caution among many voters.

“I am curious as to what will come next and how people who will take power will act,” said 42-year-old businessman Karol Jedlinski, adding that he was “far from euphoric”.

He struggled to imagine Tusk leading Poland again.

“For me he is more of a figure of the past,” he said.

Kaczynski still has ‘hope’

Much still depends on President Andrzej Duda. Analysts warn that any governing coalition formed by the opposition could face run-ins with the president, who is a PiS ally.

PiS meanwhile appeared defiant and has presented the election as a win, since the party appeared to have garnered the most votes.

Kaczynski said he still had “hope” he could form a government.

“This is not a closed road for the moment,” he said late on Sunday as the exit poll showing an opposition win came in.

The most likely coalition partner for PiS had been Confederation, a far-right party that has called for an end to Poland’s large-scale assistance for Ukraine and has campaigned on a strongly anti-migrant platform.

But the exit poll showed Pis and Confederation together would fall short of a majority, with a total of just 212 seats.

Kyiv and its Western supporters have been watching the Polish election closely in case of any effect on aid to Ukraine.

Poland has been a leading cheerleader for Ukraine in the EU and NATO and has taken in a million Ukrainian refugees, but there is growing fatigue among many Poles.