Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, casts his vote during the European Parliament elections at a polling station in Warsaw
By Marcin Goclowski and Pawel Florkiewicz
WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland's ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) surged to a clear victory in Sunday's European Parliament vote, a stamp of approval for the party's nationalist, eurosceptic platform before a national election later in the year.
The results calculated by the state electoral commission on the basis of 99.3% of polling stations showed PiS heading for its best result ever in a general or European Union election with 45.6% of votes. It won 31.8% in the EU ballot five years ago and 37.6% in the 2015 parliamentary election.
The opposition European Coalition, comprising the Civic Platform formerly led by European Council President Donald Tusk and a group of leftist and rural politicians, was second, with 38.3%. In 2014, the parties which went on to form the coalition achieved a combined result of 48.2%.
The strong showing by PiS will bolster a growing chorus of populists in Europe who share the broad goal of returning power to EU member states and strict limits on immigration.
Voter turnout stood at 45.6%, a record for a European election in Poland, following an acrimonious campaign dominated by issues such as gay rights, the legacy of the Holocaust and the role of the Catholic Church in public life.
PiS had framed the European ballot as a battle against Western liberal ideals, which it says threaten the traditional way of life in Poland, a staunchly Catholic country.
Another term in office for PiS following the national vote in October or November could increase Poland's isolation in the European Union amid criticism that the party is tilting towards authoritarian rule.
"We have to remember the decisive battle for the future of our homeland will take place in the autumn," PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski told party supporters after the exit poll results.
Kaczynski said ahead of the European election that in casting their votes Poles would be deciding on the "preservation of family values, ... the future of Polish tradition and the Church in our country," according to an interview with the ultra-conservative Gazeta Polska weekly.
"We didn't win this match, but this is only the end of the first half," leader of the opposition Grzegorz Schetyna told private broadcaster TVN24.
"There's a need to correct the course, there's a need to mobilize more voters and consolidate votes," he added suggesting extending his already broad coalition.
BATTLE OVER VALUES
A progressive party set up by Poland's first openly gay lawmaker, Robert Biedron, garnered 6.0%. Launched in February, Biedron's Spring wants to sever ties between the state and the Catholic Church in Poland, free up strict abortion laws and phase out coal mining. Observers say Spring is a natural ally for European Coalition.
"The success of PiS is part of a broad cultural divide across the world," said Jaroslaw Flis, a sociologist with the Jagiellonian University in Krakow.
"It's a divide between those who advocate economic solidarity and a uniformity of values, meaning they are socially conservative and support the welfare state, against those who back economic and social liberalism."
Some analysts had said PiS could suffer in the election following the release of a documentary film about paedophilia in the Catholic Church, which has close ties with the party.
In the run-up to Sunday's vote, senior PiS officials, including Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Kaczynski travelled to rural communities, vowing to ensure gay couples would not be allowed to adopt children and that Poland would not join Europe's single currency for years.
Poles are among the most pro-EU nations in the bloc, in part because of the massive aid it hands them. PiS focused its campaign on stoking fears over the euro, telling voters adopting it would raise consumer prices.
Not all voters bought the argument.
"I vote for Biedron's party. I feel first and foremost a European. We need to defend the EU against a wave of totalitarianism," said Marcin Matecki, a 46-year-old psychologist voting in Warsaw.
PiS also pledged to oppose any claims for compensation for Jewish property seized during World War Two, an issue that became a focal point of the campaign following efforts in the United States to tackle restitution.
(Additional reporting by Agnieszka Barteczko, Alan Charlish, Joanna Plucinska, Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk; Writing by Justyna Pawlak; Editing by Toby Chopra)