(CN) – Poland’s ruling conservative nationalist party won parliamentary elections on Sunday, a result that likely will lead it to seek to exert even more control over the country’s judiciary and deepen a showdown with the European Union.
Preliminary results showed the Law and Justice party won about 44% of the vote, giving it a majority in the 460-seat lower house, the Sejm. In previous elections in 2015, it won 38% of the vote.
But it appeared to fall short of obtaining a majority in the 100-seat Senate, winning 49 seats. The Senate is less powerful than the Sejm, but losing a majority there may make it harder for the Law and Justice party to pass legislation.
Despite the electoral success, the party’s leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, voiced disappointment on Sunday following the election.
“We received a lot, but we deserve more,” he said to the chants of supporters. “This means an obligation for us, an obligation for more work, more ideas, looking at the groups that didn’t support us. We’ll have to consider a lot of things.”
Still, it was a convincing win for the Law and Justice party, which grounded its campaign in a message of social conservatism, including anti-gay rhetoric, and social welfare spending.
This was the strongest showing of a single party since Poland dismantled communism and established its democracy in 1991. In 2015, the Law and Order party became the first government with a clear parliamentary majority in post-communist Poland.
But this nationalist party also represents a major challenge to the EU and its goals to foster liberal democracy. Poland’s ruling party has repeatedly clashed with the EU over the direction of Poland.
The Law and Justice party is accused by its critics of tightening an authoritarian grip on the country’s judicial system while also stifling dissenting voices and fomenting far-right nationalism. The party’s leaders strongly deny such charges.
The EU has been most alarmed by reforms that gave the government more control of common courts, the constitutional court, the supreme court and the final appeals court for civil and criminal cases. The government’s supporters said it was necessary to overhaul a flawed justice system ruled by a caste of corrupt judges.
EU leaders have characterized their legal and political battle with the nationalists in Poland as a fight over the “heart and soul of Europe.”
In 2017, the European Commission took the unprecedented step to trigger sanctions proceedings against Poland because of these moves. Poland became an EU member in 2004.
But it is unlikely that Poland will face sanctions – including the suspension of its voting rights in the EU – because punitive measures would require a unanimous vote by the EU’s heads of state. Hungary, for one, has said it would veto sanctions against Poland. Poland has scaled back its conflict with the EU in recent months.
The party’s popularity is largely due to its generous social spending program. After winning in 2015, it implemented a child benefit program very popular among low-income families that hadn’t done so well in the post-communist economy.
The Law and Justice party also benefits from a strong economy and falling unemployment. The economy has been so good that tax revenues have increased and the state budget deficit fallen.
During the campaign, the party said it would increase the minimum wage by nearly double by the end of 2023.
Aleks Szczerbiak, a politics professor at the University of Sussex and expert on Polish affairs, said the party’s social welfare pledges sought to drive core supporters to the polls and make them “vote out of fear” that the liberal-centrist opposition would water down social spending “if it were to win office.”
The main opposition party, the Civil Coalition, won about 27% of the vote. It is backed by many of Poland’s cultural, legal and business elites, Szczerbiak said.
Szczerbiak said the opposition was unconvincing and failed to offer an “attractive programmatic alternative on the socio-economic issues that Polish voters care most about.”
Besides economic issues, the Law and Justice party put itself at the “head of a moral crusade” and voiced strong opposition to what it called the “LGBT ideology,” Szczerbiak said.
The party presented itself as “the defender of the traditional family, Polish national identity, and Christian values and culture,” the professor said.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union)