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Poland's populist, right-wing government appears to be on its way out after 8 years

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Poland's populist right-wing government appears to be on its way out after eight years in power.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Yeah, it seems so. Exit polling shows the ruling Law and Justice party, which has steadily chipped away at democratic institutions, is suffering a dramatic upset. During its rule, the party has had a frosty relationship with its fellow European Union members. That may now change.

INSKEEP: NPR's Rob Schmitz is in Poland's capital, Warsaw. Hey there, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What are the results so far?

SCHMITZ: Well, exit polls are showing that while the ruling Law and Justice party received the highest percentage of the vote at around 36%, that is not enough for them to form a government. And that's because the only other party that would form a coalition with Law and Justice did not get enough votes. So the left-center Civic Coalition, headed by former EU Council president and former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, is poised to form a coalition government with two other parties. And last night, Tusk declared victory.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TUSK: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: And, Steve, he's saying here, nobody can cheat us anymore. We have won back our democracy. We've won freedom, and we've won back our beloved Poland.

INSKEEP: So how has Law and Justice, the party that got a lot of votes but seems to have lost, responded?

SCHMITZ: Well, last night, the party head, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, congratulated his party for garnering the most votes. But he did acknowledge that his party would have a difficult time forming a government if the exit polls are correct.

INSKEEP: How are people responding otherwise?

SCHMITZ: Shock and jubilation, Steve. Political scientists I've spoken to here are all surprised by this result. They were not expecting this. Here's political analyst Adam Traczyk.

ADAM TRACZYK: This is a huge win for the Polish democracy and for the Polish society as well. I mean, we are looking at a turnout of 73%, which is a record-breaking figure, 10 percentage points higher than during the first free election of 1989. So this is a tremendous win for the whole country and for its citizens.

SCHMITZ: And, Steve, I want to underline something that he said here. Voter turnout yesterday was 73%. No election in Polish history has come even close to that, not even in 1989, when Poles voted out communists from government. Voters were in line at some polling stations until 3 in the morning this morning, and that says a lot about how fed up voters are of this current government.

INSKEEP: What made voters fed up?

SCHMITZ: Well, Law and Justice has spent the past eight years rigging the judicial system and public media to serve its purposes and to keep itself in power. And in 2020, this largely Catholic conservative government also banned abortion in Poland. And it's interesting, it was after that when Law and Justice's popularity began to slide, it slid from 42% to 35% and it never recovered. So in essence, the abortion ban was, for so many voters, the final straw.

INSKEEP: What would this imply for other countries, given that Poland is one of a lot of countries where it seemed that democratic norms were slipping?

SCHMITZ: Well, populism and nationalism are spreading throughout Europe. And should these results hold, it'll show the world that this trend is not inevitable and that voters can put a stop to it, as they seem to have here in Poland. It will also mean that the European Union again has a close partner in Warsaw, and that the difficult work of restoring a democracy will begin again for the 40 million people here in Poland.

INSKEEP: NPR's Rob Schmitz. Thanks so much.

SCHMITZ: Thank you. 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.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
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.

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