Broad coalitions key to fighting populism: Polish opposition

WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland’s newly formed broad opposition alliance should be an example to others in Europe hoping to stem a tide of rightist populism ahead of European Parliament elections on May 26, centrist leader Grzegorz Schetyna said in an interview.

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His European Coalition - comprising the Civic Platform formerly led by European Council President Donald Tusk and a motley of leftist and rural politicians - is polling a close second to the ruling nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party.

Set up in February, the grouping has emerged as the first potential challenge to PiS rule since the arch-conservative, populist party won power in 2015 and set Poland on a collision course with the European Union over democratic standards.

The European Parliament ballot shapes up as a test ahead of the parliamentary election in Poland due in the autumn that will decide whether central Europe’s largest economy can overcome its growing isolation within the EU.

“The example of Poland is being closely watched in Europe,” Schetyna said in an interview with Reuters. “If we manage to win, it will be a signal to all countries.”

“This election, in Poland, will show that you can successfully combat populism, that you can effectively combat those who demolish democracy.”

Like rising nationalist parties elsewhere in Europe, PiS has benefited from voter concerns over migration and a disenchantment with political elites many believe neglect poorer voters at the expense of big business.

The PiS remains popular despite accusations that it is tilting formerly communist Poland back toward authoritarianism with a blend of vast social spending and nationalist rhetoric.

A poll summarizing recent polls published by ONET portal put PiS support at 38.7 percent against 34.5 percent for the European Coalition, compared with 36.1 percent versus 34 percent in March.

The polls indicate broadly, however, that an opposition coalition led by Schetyna could have a shot at forming a government after the parliamentary vote if it garners support by from new progressive group, Spring, founded by Poland’s first openly gay lawmaker, Robert Biedron, this year.

The ONET poll put their combined support at 43.2 percent, compared with 43.9 percent for PiS and a small anti-establishment group.

Schetyna said that, if successful, he would set up a commission to investigate whether PiS’ leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski violated the constitution as a de facto decision maker in Poland. Kaczynski holds no official government jobs.

A Schetyna-led government would also dismantle PiS reforms of the judiciary that have been criticized by the EU as a violation of the democratic separation of powers.

Reporting by Justyna Pawlak and Marcin Goclowski; Editing by Mark Heinrich