WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Polish opposition leader Donald Tusk declared the beginning of a new era for his country after opposition parties appeared to have won enough votes in Sunday’s parliamentary election to oust the governing nationalist conservative party.
That party, Law and Justice, has bickered with allies and faced accusations of eroding rule of law at home in its eight years in power. It appeared that voters were mobilized like never before, voting in even greater numbers than when the nation ousted the communist authorities in 1989. Exit poll results pegged it at a record 72.9%. In some places people were still in line when polling officially closed, but all were allowed to vote.
If the result predicted by the exit poll holds, Law and Justice won but also lost. It got more seats than any other party but fewer than in the previous election and not enough to be able to lead a government that can pass laws in the legislature.
The Ipsos exit poll suggested that Law and Justice obtained 200 seats. Its potential partner, the far-right Confederation got 12 seats, a showing the party acknowledged was a defeat.
It also showed that three opposition parties have likely won a combined 248 seats in the 460-seat lower house of parliament, the Sejm. The largest of the groups is Civic Coalition, led by Tusk, a former prime minister and former European Union president. It won 31.6% of votes, the exit poll said.
“I have been a politician for many years. I’m an athlete. Never in my life have I been so happy about taking seemingly second place. Poland won. Democracy has won. We have removed them from power,” Tusk told his cheering supporters.
“This result might still be better, but already today we can say this is the end of the bad time, this is end of Law and Justice rule,” Tusk added.
Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski acknowledged the ambiguous result. He told supporters at his headquarters that his party’s result, at nearly 37% of the vote, according to the exit poll, was a success, making it the party to win the most votes for three parliamentary elections in a row.
“We must have hope and we must also know that regardless of whether we are in power or in the opposition, we will implement this (political) project in various ways and we will not allow Poland to be betrayed,” Kaczynski said.
If the result holds, and Law and Justice is the single party with the most seats, then it would most likely get the first chance to try to build a government.
It falls to President Andrzej Duda, who is an ally of Law and Justice, to tap a party to try to form a government.
Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Polsat News that Duda “will entrust the mission of forming the government to the winning party and in this first step we will certainly try to build a parliamentary majority.”
The question arose whether it would obtain the new parliament’s approval.
Three opposition parties, Tusk’s Civic Coalition, Third Way and the New Left, ran on separate tickets but with the same promises of seeking to oust Law and Justice and restore good ties with the European Union.
Wlodzimierz Czarzasty, a leader of the Left party, vowed to work with the others to “create a democratic, strong, reasonable and predictable government.”
Katarzyna Pelczynska-Nalecz, the head of election campaign for Third Way, called it a “huge day for our democracy.”
Votes were still being counted and the state electoral commission says it expects to have final results by Tuesday morning.
The high turnout also extended the count of Ipsos’ late poll, based on findings from 50% of the voting stations, which was still not published in the early hours of Monday.
At stake in the election were the health of the nation’s constitutional order, its legal stance on LGBTQ+ rights and abortion, and the foreign alliances of a country that has been a crucial ally to Ukraine after Russia launched its full-scale invasion.
LGBTQ+ rights activist Bart Staszewski called it the end of a “nightmare” for himself as a gay man and others.
“This is just the beginning of reclaiming of our country. The fight is ahead but we are breathing fresh air today,” Staszewski said.
Environmental activist Dominika Lasota was emotional with relief, saying “we have our future.”
Law and Justice has eroded checks and balances to gain more control over state institutions, including the courts, public media and the electoral process itself.
During the campaign many Poles described the vote as the most important one since 1989, when a new democracy was born after decades of communism. Turnout then was 63%.
Despite many uncertainties ahead, what appeared certain was that support for the governing party has shrunk since the last election in 2019 when it won nearly 44% of the vote, its popularity dented by high inflation, allegations of cronyism and bickering with European allies.
There is a high level of state ownership in the Polish economy, and the governing party has built up a system of patronage, handing out thousands of jobs and contracts to its loyalists.
A political change could open the way for the EU to release billions of euros in funding that has been withheld over what the EU viewed as democratic erosion.
Piotr Buras, of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the opposition had gained from “growing fatigue” with the government among Poles, “beyond the groups usually supporting the liberals.”
The fate of Poland’s relationship with Ukraine was also at stake. The Confederation party campaigned on an anti-Ukraine message, accusing the country of lacking gratitude to Poland for its help in Russia’s war. Its poor showing will be a relief for Kyiv.
A referendum on migration, the retirement age and other issues was held simultaneously. Some government opponents called on voters to boycott the referendum, saying it was an attempt by the government to galvanize its supporters. Many voters were seen refusing to take part in the referendum and the exit poll pegged participation at 40%, which meant the results would not be legally binding.
Associated Press journalists Kwiyeon Ha, Pietro De Cristofaro and Rafal Niedzielski contributed to this report.