It doesn’t have the euro, its economy is barely bigger than Belgium’s and its finances are in decent shape. Yet an opposition win in Poland this weekend still might send a jolt through Europe.
Elections will say a lot about how far the former communist country has come over the past eight years, but will say more about how far it still has to go to bridge the prosperity gap with western Europe.
Polls show voters are getting ready to ditch politicians who oversaw a boom in the economy while Europe stagnated. Instead, the result could favor those promising to stand up for ordinary Poles, many of whom still want to leave for a better life abroad.
Here’s a guide to some of the key issues at play in Sunday’s vote:
People Seem Fed Up With Civic Platform
The party founded by former Prime Minister Donald Tusk has been in power since November 2007. He upped sticks last year to become president of the European Council after leading it to unprecedented back-to-back victories. The perception now is that the party has lost touch with voters outside Warsaw and Poland’s richer western regions. It’s also paying a price for a scandal last year involving tapes of officials talking rather too candidly over lavish dinners.
The Opposition Is Back in Favor
Voters are turning back to Law and Justice. The party, founded by former child actors Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, is leading polls by as much as 17 percentage points.
Former Polish President Lech Kaczynski died in a plane crash five years ago. While his twin brother still pulls the strings in the party, the Law & Justice candidate for prime minister is Beata Szydlo, making it an all-female contest against incumbent PM Ewa Kopacz of Civic Platform.
- Leading Polish Women Debate With Election Majority at Stake
- Polish Anti-Migrant Party Sets Sight on Parliament Majority
Smaller Parties Are Important
Like in most of Poland’s eight previous post-1989 general elections, smaller parties have emerged that just might cross the 5 percent threshold to enter parliament. Despite its lead, a majority for Law & Justice would be a surprisingly emphatic victory, so newer political faces are worth watching for.
There are five groups on the threshold, ranging from an anti-establishment movement led by rock musician Pawel Kukiz to a party led by an economist preaching the gospel of austerity and free markets.
A Law & Justice Win Could Spook Banks and Markets
The makeup of the next government is key to how financial markets react to the exit poll and early results on Sunday night. A survey of economists by Bloomberg showed the biggest concern for Poland’s currency, the zloty, would be an outright majority for Law & Justice. That would enable the party to keep its spending promises, hit banks with new taxes and potentially be more of a wildcard for foreign investors.
- Zloty Fate Hinges on Scale of Opposition Ballot Win, Poll Shows
- Polish Banks Face Taxation and ‘Re-Polonization’: Election Q&A
- Five Issues Jangling Investor Nerves Before Poland’s Elections
Poland Is Nervous About Russia – and Refugees
Finally, a change of government in Poland comes at a pivotal time for European foreign policy and history shows how sandwiched the country is between east and west. Law & Justice has made it clear it wouldn’t have supported taking in refugees in the recent EU vote, while it says Poland also needs to protect itself from a more assertive Russia with NATO boots on the ground.
Poland’s Election, Oct. 25: The Basics
- Population: 38.2 million
- GDP: $548 billion
- Budget deficit, 2014: 3.3%/GDP
- Government debt, 2014: 50.4%/GDP
- Polls open: 7am-9pm CET
- 460 seats open in the Sejm (lower house); 100 in the Senat (upper chamber)
- Parties need 5 percent to gain Sejm seats (coalitions need 8 percent.)
- In the Senat, it’s a first-past-the-post system.
With assistance from Maciej Martewicz, Maciej Onoszko, Barbara Sladkowska, Piotr Bujnicki, Dorota Bartyzel, Konrad Krasuski, Piotr Skolimowski, Marek Strzelecki and Marta Waldoch in Warsaw.