By Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk
WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland's nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party is seeking an unprecedented third term in a parliamentary election due on Oct. 15.
During its eight years in power, PiS has been accused by critics at home and abroad of undermining democratic rules, turning public media into a government mouthpiece, and reshaping the country according to its deeply conservative values.
However, the party's generous welfare programmes and steep increases in the minimum wage have raised living standards for millions of Poles and broadened its appeal beyond its conservative base.
Below are the party's main policy pillars and the reforms it has implemented since 2015:
Court reforms are at the heart of the accusations, which PiS denies, that it is subverting democratic norms. The party says changes are necessary to make the system more fair and efficient and to rid it of Communist-era vestiges.
PiS has given the justice minister control over prosecutors and changed the way judges are disciplined and appointed, handing politicians more power in the process.
The EU's top court has demanded that Poland disband a disciplinary chamber for judges and imposed fines of 1 million euros a day (later reduced to 500,000 euros) for failing to do so. By June, the amount of fines totalled 556.5 million euros.
The European Commission also sued Warsaw in the EU's top court after Poland's Constitutional Tribunal challenged the primacy of EU law.
The Tribunal ruled in 2020 that terminations of pregnancies with foetal defects were unconstitutional, resulting in a near-total ban on abortion. Critics accused PiS of orchestrating the decision, something it denies.
PiS changed school curricula to reflect its conservative agenda, and plans to ban NGOs from running sex education lessons.
State funding for in vitro fertilisation has also been cut.
The EU has criticised Poland over gay rights after dozens of local governments declared themselves free of "LGBT ideology". Most backpedalled after Brussels said they could lose EU funds.
PiS has drawn criticism from Jewish groups and some historians for a policy of playing down the role of Poles who collaborated with Nazi Germans during the Holocaust and focusing on those who sheltered Jews.
It has also demanded that Germany pay billions of euros in reparations for damage inflicted during World War Two.
STATE FINANCES, ECONOMIC POLICY
The party's flagship policy was the introduction of a universal child benefit in 2016, dubbed 500+ because of the zloty amount it awarded for each child. It is widely seen as a symbol of PiS' expansive fiscal policies.
According to OECD data, Poland was 12th lowest in terms of spending on families in 2015. By 2019, such spending doubled to 3% of GDP, the seventh highest in the OECD, above levels in Finland or France. PiS plans to raise child benefit by 60% to 800 zlotys from 2024.
The mandatory minimum wage has more than doubled under PiS. Some local businesses complain this exacerbated their costs, but foreign direct investment remains high.
In 2015, around 900,000 children were living in extreme poverty, a figure that more than halved by 2020, says the Polish branch of the European Anti-Poverty Network.
The government was critisised for shifting large parts of expenditure off-budget, initially for spending on the COVID pandemic but now encompassing military and other items.
Some economists complain PiS has close links to the central bank and have accused rate-setters of taking political considerations into account in policy decisions, something both the party and the bank deny.
Small enterpreneurs have complained that PiS has raised their tax burden as part of an overhaul aimed at reducing taxes for lower earners. It has won praise for improving VAT collection.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, Poland has stood out as one of Kyiv's staunchest allies, giving shelter to millions of refugees and providing Ukraine with arms and logistical support.
It plans to spend up to 4% of gross domestic product on its own military this year.
Under the PiS government, majority state-owned refiner Orlen took over rival Lotos, utilities Energa and PGNiG as well as press publisher Polska Press. Critics accuse the company of political involvement, including running ads directed at the opposition.
Several banks have also been taken over by state-controlled companies, with the share of bank assets owned by the state almost doubling to 50%.
PiS has long argued that foreign-owned media have too much power in Poland, distorting public debate. Critics say PiS has turned public media into propaganda outlets, while private broadcasters complain of pressure from officials. PiS denies both.
Due to concerns over the rule of law, Poland has not obtained access to 23.9 billion euros in grants and 11.5 billion in loans from the EU's COVID recovery plan. It risks losing up to 76.5 billion euros in 'cohesion policy' funds for 2021–2027.
Poland has also been an odds with Brussels over other issues, such as the Fit for 55 energy transition package, the EU migration deal and Ukrainian grain imports.
(Additional reporting by Gergely Szakacs, Karol Badohal, Anna Koper and Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Gareth Jones)