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“The end of the bad times.” That’s how opposition leader Donald Tusk described the results of Sunday night’s crucial parliamentary election in Poland (based on exit polls). Poles turned out in droves to vote after a deeply polarizing campaign designed to suppress participation by the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) in its own interests. They offer a path to power for opposition parties led by Tusk’s centre-right Civic Platform party and a path to democratic salvation for Poland, according to Ipsos exit polls.

Sunday’s vote is the most important since Poland held its first democratic elections in 1989 after the end of communist rule. Poland’s survival as a democracy and a country that upholds the rule of law rather than the ruling party’s ideological agenda is at stake. The opposition victory, and the subsequent depoliticization of Poland’s judiciary, should free up billions of euros in EU funds for Warsaw. It would also repair Poland’s relations with its nearest neighbours, first Germany, but also Ukraine, which has been collateral damage in Law and Justice’s election campaign. If it means Poland supports EU enlargement, closer integration and stronger EU defence, it could reshape the EU.

Ipsos exit polls estimated that the ultra-nationalist Law and Justice party, led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, topped the election with 37 percent of the vote. (As of 10 a.m. local time on Monday, only 29% of votes had been counted, giving Law and Justice an even wider lead). As the largest party, it will have the right to make the first attempt to form a government. But the far-right Federal Alliance performed poorly, winning an estimated 6% of the vote, meaning Law and Justice lacked any partners to gain a majority.

The result vindicated former Prime Minister Tusk, who returned to Polish politics in 2021 after five years as European Council president in Brussels. After being reviled by much of Poland’s electorate, he has imposed order on a fractious party, turning the campaign into a referendum on his main rival Kaczynski and exploiting concerns about inflation and the cost of living. . Civic Platform outperformed the polls, winning 32% of the vote. But a strong showing by other opposition groups could ultimately lead to the end of Poland’s nationalist government. The center-right coalition “Third Way” and the Left are expected to win 13% and 9% of the vote respectively. The three opposition parties will have a combined 248 seats in the 460-member House of Representatives, or lower house.

Unlike Hungary, whose nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban appears unable to be ousted, Poland has proven itself to be a resilient democracy. Sunday’s turnout was nearly 73%, a high number by Polish standards and the highest in 34 years, indicating that many Poles know what is at stake.

The 2019 election was deemed free but unfair. Sunday’s vote was certainly unfair and hardly free. Law and Justice authorities increased the number of polling stations in rural heartlands but failed to update borders in line with population growth to provide more seats in Poland’s liberal cities. In addition to the votes in the House of Representatives and the Senate, the Law and Justice government has held four referendums on issues clearly designed to galvanize its conservative base and without limits on campaign spending.

Law and Justice has also mobilized all the resources of the highly politicized state apparatus to support its campaign.not just the government mouthpiece It is now national television, along with much of the local media that was taken over by state oil company Orlen last year. On the eve of polling day, Oron conveniently lowered the price of gasoline despite rising crude oil prices. The central bank cut interest rates in September despite double-digit inflation. Although Poland’s economy performed well during PiS’ eight years in power, voters no longer trust Kaczynski’s party to deliver sustained prosperity.

If, as exit polls suggest, Law and Justice fails to secure a majority, the real test of the health of Polish democracy will be an orderly transfer of power. Tusk may not have a chance to form a government until January. Kaczynski’s warning about future “fighting and all kinds of tensions” sounded ominous. Even if the opposition takes power, Polish President Andrzej Duda and the Law and Justice deep state, allied to Law and Justice, could block reforms that would restore democracy and judicial independence. But for now, Polish pro-Europeans have good reason to celebrate.

ben.hall@ft.com

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