Poland is holding an election Sunday that many view as its most important one since the 1989 vote that toppled communism.
At stake are the health of the nation's democracy, its legal stance on LGBTQ+ rights and abortion, and the foreign alliances of a country on NATO's eastern flank that has been a crucial ally to Ukraine.
Political experts say the election will not be fully fair after eight years of governing by a conservative nationalist party that has eroded checks and balances to gain more control over state institutions, including the courts, public media and the electoral process itself.
Opponents of the ruling Law and Justice party fear it could be their last chance to preserve the constitutional system won at great cost through the struggle of many Poles, from former President Lech Walesa to the millions who supported his Solidarity movement.
The election “will decide the future of Poland as a country of liberal democracy, a system that has been a guarantor of Polish success for the last three decades," the editor of the Rzeczpospolita newspaper, Boguslaw Chrabota, wrote in a Friday editorial.
Supporters of the ruling party, however, are afraid that if Law and Justice is voted out, the opposition would take the country in a more liberal direction, including with new laws legalising abortion and civil unions for same-sex partners.
Women in Poland currently have the right to abortions only in cases of rape or incest, or if there is a threat to their life or health.
“I’m afraid that I’ll wake up after the elections and there will be such a change that, for example, abortion will be promoted (and) LGBT," said civil servant Bozena Zych, 57, after leaving a Catholic church located in a hipster area of Warsaw filled with gay-friendly establishments.
Zych said she went to the Church of the Holiest Savior with a friend to pray for Law and Justice to win a third-straight term. Churches, even Poland's holiest Jasna Gora shrine in Czestochowa, have held prayers in recent weeks for candidates who support Christian values.
Citizens who want a more liberal Poland also mobilised with two massive marches this year. Some interviewed in recent days by became very emotional or fought back tears as they described what they regard as corruption, democratic backsliding, propaganda and bitter divisions in Polish society since Law and Justice came to power in 2015.
“What has happened in Poland is a nightmare,” said Maryla Kowalewska, 75. “Let's hope there is a total change in this country.”
Recent polls show Law and Justice has more support than any other single party, but not enough to reach the majority in Parliament it would need to govern alone. It could be forced to seek support from a far-right party, Confederation, that is hostile to Ukraine.
The polls show that three opposition groups - Civic Coalition, Third Way and New Left - could together get a majority of seats in Parliament. The largest is the centrist Civic Coalition led by Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister and former European Union president.
Tusk has vowed to restore the rule of law and rebuild ties with the EU that became severely strained under Law and Justice. The EU is withholding billions of euros in COVID-19 pandemic recovery funds from Warsaw, citing rule of law violations.
Small shifts for or against the smaller parties could significantly impact what coalitions will be possible after election day.
“So we have this situation of two sides who think that these are very high-stakes elections, two sides very determined and energetic. The emotions are very high, but the playing field is not even,” said Jacek Kucharczyk, the president of the Institute of Public Affairs, a Warsaw-based think tank.
The main reason for the imbalance is Law and Justice’s control of taxpayer-funded state media, which it uses to constantly bash opponents, Kucharczyk argued. But other factors could play a role in the election's outcome, including the party’s political control over the electoral administration and the chamber of the Supreme Court that will validate the election.
There is also a high level of state ownership in the Polish economy, and the ruling party has built up a system of patronage, handing out thousands of jobs and contracts to its loyalists.
Wojciech Przybylski, editor-in-chief of Visegrad Insight, a policy journal focused on Central Europe, said the practice threatens the ability of the middle class to advance socially “without special connections to politics.”
That could in turn threaten the foundations of the "economic miracle” Poland has experienced in the post-communist era, he said. The country is now the EU's sixth-largest economy.
Law and Justice's nationalist policies also have harmed Poland's relations with key allies. While Poland has been a staunch ally of neighboring Ukraine since Russia invaded and a transit hub for Western weapons, relations chilled over the Ukrainian grain that entered Poland's market.
With tensions rising, and as the Confederation party's numbers grew, Poland's prime minister said his country was no longer sending weapons to Kyiv.
“They quarreled with everyone, with the EU, with NATO, with everyone,” said Ludmila, a 68-year-old who opposes Law and Justice. She wouldn't give her last name, saying that the country was moving in an authoritarian direction and she didn't feel safe doing so. “This is unacceptable, it cannot continue like this."
“Poland will be as lonely as in 1939,” the year World War II broke out, she added.