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Exit polls indicate Poland's current ruling party didn't get enough votes to stay

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

According to exit polls, Poland's current ruling party, the right-wing Law and Justice party, didn't secure enough votes in yesterday's election to remain in government. NPR's Rob Schmitz reports that it represents a stunning demand by Polish voters for change.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Relief - that's the first word Eva Bedkowska says came to her mind when she saw the initial results of yesterday's election.

EVA BEDKOWSKA: (Speaking Polish).

SCHMITZ: "I'm 72 years old," she tells me. "So I've lived through a lot. But I don't remember a time, not even during the Soviet years, as bad as the last eight years of Law and Justice running this country." When asked if she was surprised by the election results, Bedkowska says yes, but not in the way most here are surprised.

BEDKOWSKA: (Speaking Polish).

SCHMITZ: "I'm surprised they did so well," she says, "considering how many corruption scandals their government was involved in. How could their voters remain loyal to them through all of that?" The most recent one involved the resignation of a deputy foreign minister caught profiting from the sale of visas to migrants - the very migrants Law and Justice typically rail against in their speeches. Despite the scandal, Law and Justice was the party that received the most votes, according to exit polling - around 36%. But it wouldn't have enough allies to form a government. But don't tell that to 88-year-old Alexandra Goretzka.

ALEXANDRA GORETZKA: (Speaking Polish).

SCHMITZ: "I feel good about the election result," says Goretzka. "I voted for Law and Justice, and I was happy to see them win the election." She admits they might not have enough votes to govern, but she hopes once the final results come in, they might be able to pick up more seats in Parliament. Goretzka says she voted for Law and Justice because she doesn't want any more migrants coming to Poland.

GORETZKA: (Speaking Polish).

SCHMITZ: "If the opposition ends up governing Poland," she says, "I worry about the homeland and our national sovereignty. If they gain power, they'll just do whatever Germany or the European Union will tell them to." For voter Maya Jankowska, integrating Poland more into the EU is a good thing.

MAYA JANKOWSKA: I've heard so many women saying that they're scared of having children here.

SCHMITZ: The 22-year-old says if Law and Justice had won, she would have moved away to Denmark or Germany, where she thinks education levels are higher.

JANKOWSKA: I feel like if we continue to be ruled by this government, we are going to be less and less educated. I can see where they are going since they're kind of religious. They're Catholics, and the Catholic is all against even birth control.

SCHMITZ: Jankowska says the abortion ban Law and Justice's government instituted in 2020 had a deep impact on her and her friends, and they took to the streets of Warsaw among hundreds of thousands of others to protest it. And that was about the time that political analyst Adam Traczyk noticed a change in popular support for Law and Justice, known inside of Poland by its acronym PiS.

ADAM TRACZYK: And we have seen that after the protest, after the ban two years ago, the PiS party never recovered.

SCHMITZ: Turnout was a record 73%, with some voters waiting in line until 3 in the morning, surprising political analysts like Andrzej Bobinski of Polityka Insight.

ANDRZEJ BOBINSKI: And there was this, you know, atmosphere of a party and people handing out pizza and bringing coffee and tea and keeping themselves warm, etc. So, yeah, it looked like the rebirth of Polish civil society.

SCHMITZ: And while Bobinski says a new government will have a lot of difficult work ahead of them, this party-like atmosphere of change and hope should keep many Polish voters warm throughout the coming winter. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Warsaw. 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.