Poland's nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party secured a second term in power in Sunday's parliamentary election, partial results showed on Monday, but fell short of the landslide victory it needs to overhaul the constitution.
After four years in power marked by judicial and media reforms that Poland's European partners criticised as subverting democratic norms, PiS campaigned on a promise to enshrine more Catholic and patriotic values in public life.
The ruling party won 43.8% of the vote, against the 37.6% it won in 2015, according to official results from 99.5% of constituencies published by the electoral committee on Monday. The result gives PiS a narrow majority in parliament but not enough to reshape the constitution, its ultimate ambition.
Officials were quick to signal the party would continue its judicial reforms, which critics say amount to a politicisation of the courts, but PiS says are needed to make the system more efficient and fair.
There was no immediate reaction from the European Union, which has taken Poland to court over its past judicial reforms.
Sunday's results highlighted increased political polarisation in Poland under PiS rule, with the liberal opposition scoring sweeping victories in some large cities where voters fret over the future of democratic standards in Poland.
Echoing opposition victories in local elections in Hungary and Turkey, Poland's Civic Coalition, a centrist umbrella group, and a left-wing bloc won roughly 60% of votes in the capital Warsaw on Sunday against 28% for PiS.
In a further sign of deepening divisions, a group of far-right politicians and activists, the Confederation, won seats in parliament for the first time, securing 6.8% of the vote, just above the 5% threshold needed to enter the legislature.
Critics have accused PiS of fomenting homophobia during the election campaign, with PiS officials branding lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights an "invasive foreign influence" that threatens Poland's national identity.
"We saved Poland. ... It is time to complete decommunisation. It is time to stop the LGBT dictate!," Deputy Digitalisation Minister Andrzej Andruszkiewicz, who is seen as close to far-right politicians, wrote in a tweet.
Throughout the campaign, PiS told voters that business and cultural elites should be replaced with people who espouse patriotic values, to weed out what it says is a communist-era web of influence that prevents fair market competition.
Observers said PiS might reach out to Confederation lawmakers to seek support for policies such as further curbs on abortion. The party had sought to introduce a near-total ban on terminating pregnancies in its first term in power, but rowed back after a massive public outcry.
"We can expect a further turn towards the right by PiS to win the support of Confederation (lawmakers)," said Agnieszka Kwiatkowska, a sociologist with the SWPS University in Warsaw.
Ahead of the election, PiS signaled it would return to plans to bring more private media outlets under the control of Polish capital, which critics say threatens journalistic independence.
Since taking power in 2015, PiS has turned public broadcasters into mouthpieces for its agenda, and state firms have hugely increased spending on advertising in private publications that stoke homophobia and anti-Semitism.
Whether it can take significant steps to secure control of private outlets might depend on reaction from the European Union and Washington, which has in the past chastised PiS efforts to rein in TV channel TVN24, owned by U.S. media group Discovery.
While PiS chief Jaroslaw Kaczynski quickly declared victory on Sunday, party officials expressed disappointment with the results.
"It's in human nature to expect more," Jacek Sasin, a deputy prime minister in the outgoing cabinet, told TVN24 broadcaster.
Markets took the election result in their stride, with bond prices edging up and the zloty moving sideways against the euro.
A key challenge for PiS will be fiscal policy at a time of economic slowdown among Poland's main trading partners in Europe, which could pressure budget revenues and hamper the party's generous welfare programmes.
Throughout the election campaign, PiS mixed nationalist rhetoric with pledges to maintain the social programmes, which boosted its support among poorer voters who had felt excluded from Poland's growing prosperity since the end of communism.
Economists say the PiS welfare programmes, which topped 70 billion zlotys ($18 billion) over four years, were in part fueled by an economic boom at home and abroad. PiS also benefited from diminishing dole queues as labour shortages spiked throughout central Europe.
"PiS might face difficulties related to the economic cycle," said Jacek Haman of the Warsaw University. "People who have benefited from economic growth will start experiencing problems linked to inflation or the job market."
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)