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Poland's upcoming election could be most important in decades

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

This Sunday, voters in Poland face their most important election in decades. The country of 40 million, a member of the European Union, will choose between the ruling party, which has chipped away at democratic institutions, and another party, which promises to restore the principles of the EU. From Warsaw, here's NPR's Rob Schmitz.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Polish).

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: With just a few days to go before the election, the campaign headquarters of parliamentarian Pawel Lisiecki is buzzing. Volunteers come in and out, tiptoeing through dozens of paper bags strewn across the floor, filled with sweets and campaign brochures that'll be handed out to elderly voters. Lisiecki represents this working-class district of Warsaw. He's a member of the ruling Law and Justice Party, whose polling numbers have dropped in the wake of a scandal that saw a member of its typically anti-migrant government selling visas to migrants.

PAWEL LISIECKI: (Speaking Polish).

SCHMITZ: "Yes," Lisiecki admits, "this will probably have an impact on how many votes we get, but it won't be enough to decide the election," he says. "This election will be a close one, but what's most important is that Poland end up with a stable government."

This is a talking point that party head Jaroslaw Kaczynski has repeated on the campaign trail, warning voters about a potential future under his opponent, Donald Tusk, former prime minister and former president of the European Council, whose Civic Coalition is trying to unseat Law and Justice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAROSLAW KACZYNSKI: (Speaking Polish).

SCHMITZ: At a rally in August, Kaczynski told voters if the opposition were to gain power, a civil war would begin. They want to rescind laws and attack public offices. Tusk warned Kaczynski is the incarnation of evil.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TUSK: (Speaking Polish).

SCHMITZ: Political observers like Jacek Kucharczyk thinks it's Kaczynski and his ruling Law and Justice Party, not Tusk, who are the problem.

JACEK KUCHARCZYK: This government has been dismantling democratic institutions, limiting different civic rights like the right to assembly, freedom of information, the right to independent court.

SCHMITZ: In short, Kucharczyk says if this government is reelected for a third term, democracy in Poland would likely not survive. Marta Prochwicz-Jazowska agrees. She's an analyst at the Warsaw office of the German Marshall Fund. She says Law and Justice, also known by its Polish acronym PiS, has chipped away at Poland's judicial system and turned public media into party propaganda, tipping the electorate its way.

MARTA PROCHWICZ-JAZOWSKA: If that's all they watch, then they're of course going to vote for PiS because the way that PiS is portrayed is as a savior of the nation.

SCHMITZ: The Law and Justice Party has used the media to scare Poles about rampant migration destroying their traditional way of life.

PROCHWICZ-JAZOWSKA: They're trying to keep it Catholic. They're trying to keep it white.

SCHMITZ: But this isn't the vision for all of Poland's voters.

(APPLAUSE)

SCHMITZ: Two weeks ago, one of the biggest marches since the fall of communism took place in Warsaw, filled with supporters of Donald Tusk's Civic Coalition.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE BLOWING)

SCHMITZ: Forty-six-year-old Dorota Pawlak cheered Tusk on. She says if Law and Justice, known as PiS to Poles, wins this election, the country's slide to an authoritarian system will accelerate.

DOROTA PAWLAK: I think if PiS wins, we are going to leave European Union, which we cannot afford. And it's going to be poor and lonely country.

SCHMITZ: Latest polls show Law and Justice running neck and neck with the Civic Coalition. Neither party will likely have enough votes to form a majority, so whoever wins Sunday's election will have to negotiate with other parties to form Poland's next government. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Warsaw.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUN B AND STATIK SELEKTAH SONG, "STILL TRILL (FEAT. METHOD MAN AND GRAFH) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.