By Justyna Pawlak
WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland holds a high-stakes national election on Oct. 15 that may give the ruling nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party an unprecedented third term in power and will be closely watched by Warsaw's military allies amid the war in neighbouring Ukraine.
Most public opinion surveys show the PiS and its small allies, Sovereign Poland and the Republicans, in the lead. But their margin over the main opposition grouping - the centre-right Civic Platform (PO) of former European Council President Donald Tusk - has shrunk since PiS reached a high of 43.6% in the 2019 election.
Whether PiS, if it wins, can form a functioning government will depend on a number of factors.
First, Poland's election rules favour big players, and PiS could get a substantial boost if one or more of its small rivals do not win the minimum number of votes to make it into parliament. This could include the centrist agrarian Third Way party, the far-right Confederation or the New Left.
PiS could also win by such a small margin, while PO and the New Left or Third Way do well, that the opposition gets a shot at forming a majority coalition, some surveys show.
The Confederation is the dark horse in the election and could be the kingmaker. Polls over the summer showed it winning some 14% of votes, although that number has shrunk in recent weeks to single digits. The party is popular among young people, who tend to vote less frequently, so turnout could be key.
Confederation leaders have said they would not enter any coalition, so if the party does well, PiS or PO might be short of a majority.
Political observers say PiS would likely try to persuade some Confederation lawmakers to switch ranks but their success could depend on how many seats the party wins.
WHAT ARE THE STAKES?
A third PiS term would probably mean Poland continues to drift away from democratic standards, critics say. The government is accused of politicising the judiciary, turning public media into a party mouthpiece, using state assets to further its grip on power, and of fanning homophobia.
PiS says its objective is to make courts more effective and the economy fairer, and that all it does is defend Poland's Catholic character in the face of Western liberal pressures.
An opposition-led government would face the task of undoing PiS changes to the judiciary and the media to ensure their independence and their compliance with the constitution, which critics say PiS has subverted.
It would also open the way for Poland to mend relations with Germany that have come under serious strain during PiS rule.
PiS would likely seek to take further steps towards instilling its conservative values in public life, particularly concerning mandatory school curricula.
PO has promised it would bring back the possibility of terminating pregnancies up until 12 weeks, after a verdict of the Constitutional Tribunal, considered politicised under PiS, resulted in a near-total ban on abortions.
Any policy paralysis following the election - likely if no clear majority emerges - could raise concern for Poland's role in supporting Ukraine in its war with Russia. Warsaw has played an important role among NATO allies in providing logistical and military support to Kyiv.
The next government will also have to tackle a soaring budget deficit, and an economy that's behind in meeting the European Union's clean energy rules.
It will further need to persuade Brussels that its democratic track record is improving enough - after recent proposed tweaks to the judiciary - to unlock billions of euros in COVID recovery and cohesion funds.
WHAT ARE VOTERS FOCUSING ON?
Diminishing purchasing power is foremost for voters amid double-digit inflation and soaring energy costs.
PiS hopes to galvanise its electorate, which tends to be older, poorer people from smaller towns, by increasing its flagship child subsidy programme by 60% to 800 zlotys ($193) per month per child.
The programme, dubbed 500+ when it was first introduced by PiS as it was vying for power in 2015, has become a symbol for many voters of what the party says is its policy of protecting families and giving back "dignity" to the poor.
PiS also says its rule guarantees national security, pointing out its massive military equipment purchases and its anti-immigration stance.
PO, however, says a series of incidents, including Belarusian helicopters crossing into Poland and a stray rocket lost in a Polish forest, show the government is struggling to ensure border safety.
Confederation appears to have attracted young voters with a promise of low taxes and smaller social security contributions.
The PiS government is also putting a series of questions on the issues of migration, privatisation, the retirement age and security on the ballot alongside the election, saying the nation needs to make its voice heard in a referendum.
The opposition says the questions misrepresent its positions on the issues and are aimed at fomenting fear of migrants, and that the process is invalid. Opposition leaders are urging a boycott. More than 50% of registered voters would have to participate for the outcome to be valid.
($1 = 4.1359 zlotys)
(Reporting by Justyna Pawlak; additional reporting by Marek Strzelecki, Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk and Alan Charlish; editing by Tom Hogue and Mark Heinrich)