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Poland Holds High-Stakes Election Amid Rows Over Democratic Rule

Poles vote Sunday in a parliamentary election the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) hopes will earn it an unprecedented third term in office, while the opposition warns it could put the country on a path towards leaving the European Union.

Opinion polls suggest PiS will come out ahead but could lose its majority amid intensifying discontent over its democratic record, which has cost Poland billions of euros in EU aid, and concerns over women’s rights and the cost of living.

With war raging in neighboring Ukraine and a migrant crisis brewing, the EU and Washington are watching the vote closely, although both PiS and its mainstream opposition support NATO-member Poland’s key role in providing military and logistical support to Kyiv.

PiS has cast the election as a choice between security from unfettered migration, which it says its opponents support, and a creeping westernization it sees as contrary to Poland’s Catholic character.

“This election will show whether Poland will be governed by Poles, or by Berlin or Brussels,” PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski told supporters at the party’s last campaign rally Friday.

“What will win is good, patriotic governance … not the screaming and hatred that fill the media and which affect weaker minds,” he said in Skarzysko Kamienna, a city in the PiS heartland in southeastern Poland.

Since sweeping to power in 2015, the party has been accused of undermining democratic checks and balances, politicizing the courts, using publicly owned media to push its own propaganda, and stirring up homophobia.

PiS denies wrongdoing, or wanting to leave the EU, and says its reforms aim to make the country and its economy more fair while removing the last vestiges of communism. It has built its support on generous social handouts, which it says rival parties will stop.

Its main rival, the liberal Civic Coalition (KO), led by former European Council president Donald Tusk, has campaigned on a pledge to undo PiS reforms, hold its leaders to account and resolve conflicts with Brussels over democratic rule. Tusk says his party would maintain social support.

“We need change if you care about fundamental values such as trust, accountability, tolerance to dominate public life again,” Warsaw mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, who is a senior KO official, told voters on Friday in Kalisz, in central Poland.

Voting starts at 7 a.m. local time and ends at 9 p.m.

Political analysts say Poland could face a period of instability if PiS fails to secure a majority.

One option would be to rely on lawmakers from the far-right Confederation party, whose support among younger voters jumped earlier this year on the back of promises to reduce taxes and limit support for Ukrainian refugees.

The mainstream opposition might also end up with a majority, but it may take time before it has a turn at forming a government if PiS takes the top spot.

Regardless of who wins, credit rating agencies believe that pledges of higher social spending will be hard to reverse, raising questions about the public finances and leaving markets jittery.

Foreign investors have pulled $2.3 billion from domestic government bonds and in July held less than 15% of outstanding bonds, the lowest level in well over a decade and below the historic average of 20%, JPMorgan calculations show.