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Knife-edge Polish exit poll gives ex-PM Tusk potential route back to power

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Opposition leader Donald Tusk could return as Polish prime minister, according to an exit poll after Sunday’s parliamentary election that put the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) ahead but with insufficient votes to govern alone or with a far-right party.

PiS and its leader Jarosław Kaczyński were expected to win 36.8 per cent of the vote, ahead of 31.8 per cent for Tusk’s Civic Platform. Together with two other parties, Civic Platform is on track to get 248 of the 460 seats in the Sejm, the lower house of Poland’s parliament, according to the exit poll conducted by Ipsos.

Tusk pledged during the campaign to reposition Warsaw on a firm pro-European path, restore the independence of judges and unlock billions of euros of EU funding withheld by the European Commission in a spat with the PiS government over judicial reforms.

The vote is seen as the most significant election for the EU this year, potentially redefining the relationship between Brussels and the largest member state in central and eastern Europe after years of feuding. 

“This is the end of bad times, this is the end of PiS rule,” Tusk said on Sunday night to cheering supporters. “We did it, for real. Poland won, democracy won.”

At the PiS headquarters, Kaczyński told his supporters that there was still a way for his party to return to power. “Ahead of us are days of fight and various tensions,” the ultraconservative leader said. “We must have hope and know that regardless of whether we are in power or in opposition, we will implement this project in different ways.”

Poland’s conservative ruling Law and Justice party leader Jarosław Kaczyński greets his supporters in Warsaw after the polls © AP

If the final results match the poll, PiS will struggle to secure a third term in government as its potential coalition partner — the far-right Confederation — is only expected to win 6.2 per cent of the vote, equivalent to just 12 seats.

PiS will be granted the first opportunity to form a government by president Andrzej Duda if results confirm that it remains the largest party in the Polish parliament.

The final results of the fiercely contested election are not expected before late Monday or even Tuesday, as counting will be complicated by a referendum that PiS added to the ballot in order to promote four issues that were at the heart of its campaign. Tusk had called on voters to boycott the referendum.

The election could also ease recent tensions between Warsaw and Kyiv, which were sparked in large part by PiS’s re-election bid. PiS sparred with Confederation, which claimed that the government was too generous to Ukrainian refugees, and also sought to appease its farming electorate by imposing a unilateral ban on Ukrainian grain imports earlier this year.

Turnout for the parliamentary election was on track to set a record for polling since Poland’s return to democracy, according to preliminary figures. At 5pm, the official turnout was almost 8 percentage points higher than in the previous election in 2019. Queues formed outside polling stations in Warsaw and other big cities early on Sunday, while over 600,000 Poles had also registered to vote from abroad, almost double the number four years ago.

At a polling station inside a school in Warsaw’s Ochota district, younger voters said they wanted Poland to play a more constructive role in the shaping of EU politics, as well as be part of a society more aligned with modern European values. 

Daniel, 37, who works for an American food company, said he had voted for Tusk’s Civic Platform but his wife had opted for “a tactical vote” in favour of the smaller Left party to help guarantee it pass the vote threshold required to enter parliament. “I think many people did tactical voting today to make sure we could get rid off PiS, which really was the priority,” he said.

“We have two world views now in Poland, one is for Europe and the other against, but for me the really unacceptable part is everything that has happened to our justice system in the last years. Today was our last chance perhaps to say stop and get back to a normal situation.”

Building entrepreneur Michał, 33, equated the prospect of a third consecutive PiS government with more isolation on the international stage. “Poland cannot afford to get kicked out of the EU when you look at our geopolitical position. If we keep the same government, this is where we would be heading.”

Still, analysts warned that the fragmented and poisonous politics of Poland made the exit poll potentially less reliable than in previous elections.

Similar elections in Slovakia two weeks ago projected the liberal opposition leader ahead, but end results put populist Robert Fico and his Smer party in the lead. “We could still have a Slovakian situation here,” said Marcin Duma, head of pollster Ibris ahead of Sunday’s vote.

PiS officials have also warned that pollsters may not accurately register support for their party.

“We believe that we have a silent majority,” said Janusz Kowalski, deputy agriculture minister. “I know lots of voters who don’t want to communicate openly that they vote for Law and Justice.”

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