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On election day in Poland, people express hope for voting out the ruling party


It's Election Day in Poland and possibly one of the most important elections since the fall of communism there in 1989. For the past eight years, the ruling Law and Justice party has stripped away the independence of the judiciary and the press. The European Union has frozen billions of dollars' worth of funding for the member state as a result. NPR's Rob Schmitz joins us now from Warsaw. Hi, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Morning, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So you've spent the morning at a polling station. Tell us who you've been talking to.

SCHMITZ: Yeah. I first want to introduce you to Aleksandra Rudnik. She's 75. She lives in downtown Warsaw, and she walked to her polling station with the help of a walker because she had a stroke recently that slowed her down.

ALEKSANDRA RUDNIK: I get up very early.


RUDNIK: But I dress, and - so long time. Two hours.

SCHMITZ: Two hours.

RASCOE: Two hours to - so, I mean, getting out to vote must have been really important to her.

SCHMITZ: Yeah. It's a very big deal for her. And when I spoke to her, she had just voted. And we sat down on a bench in front of the polling station, and she lit up a celebratory cigarette.

RASCOE: Well, so who'd she vote for?

SCHMITZ: So Aleksandra voted for the Civic Coalition. It's a group of opposition parties under the leadership of former Prime Minister Donald Tusk. He wants to unseat the ruling Law and Justice party because he believes Poland is veering towards an authoritarian system under that party's governance. Tusk wants to guide Poland closer to the values of the European Union. Aleksandra wants that, too. And she says that growing up behind the Iron Curtain in Soviet-era Poland taught her what's important in this respect.

RUDNIK: (Speaking Polish).

SCHMITZ: And, Ayesha, she's saying here that older people in Poland appreciate the freedom and responsibility that comes with democracy, and that the party in power now reminds her of the corruption and strong-arm rule in Soviet times. Nearly every voter that I spoke to at this polling station was voting the same way.

RASCOE: So is that a sign that we might see a new party in charge of Poland after this election?

SCHMITZ: Well, it's hard to say. You know, voters in Poland's biggest cities, like Warsaw, tend to support the Civic Coalition, while voters in rural Poland typically support Law and Justice. The latest polls actually show a slight lead for Law and Justice, and that's fueled a frenzied campaign schedule for the Civic Coalition's Donald Tusk, who is doing all he can to attract voters. I caught up with him at his final campaign event outside of Warsaw on Friday night. It was in a basketball gym that was just packed with supporters.


DONALD TUSK: (Speaking Polish).

SCHMITZ: And, Ayesha, Tusk called this day the most important day in the history of Poland's democracy. And he called the Law and Justice Party a mafia organization that has robbed Poland of its international status.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in Polish).

SCHMITZ: They're chanting thieves in Polish, and they're talking about Poland's ruling Law and Justice government.

RASCOE: So how does Law and Justice respond to that level of criticism?

SCHMITZ: Well, they're pretty used to it. In the past couple of months, I've had a chance to sit down with Law and Justice Parliament members and their voters, and it's clear they have a very different view from Tusk. They call the changes that they've made to the political system necessary ones, and their voters tell me that Law and Justice is the only party that has paid attention to rural Poland and has helped build infrastructure there and improve their lives. But I've also met former Law and Justice voters who will not vote for them again because they're scared of their corruption. The deputy foreign minister of Poland recently resigned after he was caught using Polish consulates to sell visas to migrants, and this for a party that has railed against the dangers of out-of-control migration. And it's a scandal like that that is not going to help Law and Justice today.

RASCOE: That's Rob Schmitz in Warsaw. Rob, thank you 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.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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.