Opposition hopes that the Law and Justice party would lose its majority in the 460-seat parliament faded when the first exit poll showed it winning 44 percent of the vote, equivalent to 239 seats. In the last parliament, the party held 235.
Law and Justice’s nearest rival, the center-right Civic Coalition, was predicted to win 130 seats.
The left-wing coalition, Lewica, is expected to become the third-largest party in parliament, winning 43 seats to reenter the lower chamber after four years, according to exit polls. The far-right Konfederacja was expected to enter parliament with 13 seats.
Over the past four years, Law and Justice has been accused of trampling over Poland’s constitution, interfering in the judiciary and stifling the press. After 25 years building its democracy in the wake of the fall of communism, Poland has crept toward increasing authoritarianism under Law and Justice.
Opponents fear that another four years with Law and Justice in power could do further irreparable damage to the country’s institutions. With so much at stake, turnout was estimated to have reached more than 60 percent, which if confirmed would constitute the highest figure since the fall of communism in 1989.
On the campaign trail, 70-year-old Kaczynski repeatedly emphasized the importance of the traditional family unit and what he characterizes as the danger of LGBT people while using state television as his mouthpiece.
“There are four years of hard work ahead of us,” Kaczynski said in a televised speech after exit polls were released. “Poland has to continue changing, and it has to continue changing for the better.”
The party would work to ensure that “no one in Poland will doubt what we are doing is good, realistic and responsible,” he said.
About 56 percent of voters older than 60 voted for Law and Justice, according to the polls.
The party has been helped by a period of strong economic growth in Poland and low unemployment. A generous social welfare system that Law and Justice introduced after the 2015 election — which pays families about $130 per child per month — has won it new supporters. The party has increased pensions and abolished taxes for those younger than 26.
Analysts say one reason for Law and Justice’s success was that it was quick to sense the mood of the country before the 2015 elections as anti-establishment sentiment grew and voters craved change.
“Change was in the air, and those flexible enough to seize the moment came out the winners,” said Jaroslaw Kuisz, editor in chief of the online weekly Kultura Liberalna.
Law and Justice’s social welfare policy came at a time when people were “tired” after decades of painful transition since the fall of communism, he said.
In 2015, it was the peak of Europe’s migrant crisis, and it was those refugees who became Law and Justice’s punching bags. Now, with the migrant issue a less immediate concern, those who fall outside the party’s view of a “traditional family” are the targets of fearmongering.
In a country where more than 80 percent of people identify as Catholic, the church is seen as giving tacit approval to such notions. Even as the Catholic Church under Pope Francis tries to carve out a more inclusive path, Poland’s bishops have warned of the dangers of the “LGBT ideology” as municipalities set up “LGBT-free zones.”
Robert Biedron, leader of the Spring Parties, one of three parties that make up Lewica, said the reemergence of the left will mean that issues such as LGBT rights and climate change, which have been ignored for four years, can be raised once more.
“The return of the left to the Polish parliament brings the fresh air,” he said. “It was something strange that Poland was the only country where the left wasn’t present in the parliament in Europe, and now we are back,” he said.
Law and Justice’s “violent discourse” against the LGBT community and its debate over who constitutes a “true Pole” have helped the left, Kuisz said.
“They are the clear opposition, but it may take time.”
The past four years has deeply divided Poland, cleaving families and polarizing political debate.
At a polling station in central Warsaw earlier Sunday, 64-year-old Bogumila Pawelek was voting for Law and Justice. “They take care of families,” she said, referring to the cash payouts.
“They bought the family,” muttered her husband, Juliusz, 60. He said he cast his ballot for the Civic Coalition. “The rest of our family understand that this party is breaking any and all standards going up to and beyond the limits of the law.”