Former EU chief Donald Tusk’s Civic Coalition could win 163 seats in the 460-seat parliament and two smaller parties, Third Way and Left, were set for 55 and 30 seats respectively, according to the exit poll.
That would give the three a majority of 248, while PiS is predicted to win 200 seats and the far-right Confederation, its potential coalition partner, was given only 12 seats by the Ipsos exit poll.
“Poland has won, democracy has won,” a jubilant Tusk said after the exit poll was released.
“It is the end of this grim period. PiS’s reign is over,” he said.
The 66-year-old Tusk served as Poland’s prime minister between 2007 and 2014 and as European Council president between 2014 and 2019.
He has promised to restore good relations with the European Union and unblock EU funds frozen because of disputes under the past eight years of PiS government.
Tusk has also vowed to legalise abortion — a major point of contention against the government which has emphasised traditional Catholic values.
– Still ‘hope’: Kaczynski –
PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, a 74-year-old political veteran whose late brother Lech died in a 2010 crash when he was president, said he still had “hope” his party could form the next government.
But he added: “We will do everything possible to ensure that our programme continues to be implemented despite the coalition that is against us. This is not a closed road for the moment.”
Stanislaw Mocek, a political analyst at Collegium Civitas, said: “I think that this is actually the end of the PiS government”.
Michal Baranowski, an analyst from the German Marshall Fund, said Poland could now “return to the decision-making centre of the European Union.”
He said the exit poll pointed to a possible “stable opposition government”.
Analysts also warned, however, that any governing coalition formed by the opposition could face frequent run-ins with President Andrzej Duda, a PiS ally.
The numbers in the exit poll do not give the potential opposition allies the required three-fifths majority to be able to overturn presidential vetoes.
– ‘Time for a change’ –
Turnout was high, with the exit poll estimating the national level at 72.9 percent — a record for Poland’s post-communist history.
“The turnout is probably, and by a lot, the highest” since elections in 1989 when communism ended, said Sylwester Marciniak, head of the National Electoral Office.
Marciniak said some polling stations ran out of ballot papers because of the large influx and voting had to be extended.
AFP reporters saw crowded polling stations and many voters had expressed frustration with the government.
“It’s time for a change,” said Ewa Bankowska, a 43-year-old working in finance, told AFP as she voted in Halinow, a town just outside the capital Warsaw.
“I’m concerned about the economy. I would like us to develop and for the government to stop spending money it does not have,” she said.
But Dorota Zbig, a 57-year-old nurse, said the last few years of PiS government “have been very good for me and my family and I hope everyone including young people votes reasonably”.
– Tensions with Ukraine –
PiS had vowed to press ahead with controversial reforms of the judiciary it says are aimed at rooting out corruption. The EU argues they undermine democracy.
The most likely coalition partner for PiS was Confederation, a far-right party that has called for an end to Poland’s large-scale assistance for Ukraine and has campaigned on a strongly anti-migrant platform.
But Confederation had publicly ruled out such an alliance and some analysts said it was unlikely to happen because of simmering tensions between the two parties.
The campaign was characterised by personal attacks on Tusk by the ruling party, which has accused him of working in the interests of Germany, Russia and the EU.
PiS also ramped up anti-migrant rhetoric, with Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki saying the country should be protected against illegal immigrants “who have no respect for our culture”.
Ukraine and its Western supporters have also been watching the Polish elections closely.
Poland has been a leading cheerleader for Ukraine in the EU and NATO and has taken in a million Ukrainian refugees, but there is growing fatigue among many Poles.
The government has also fallen out with Ukraine over a grain import ban aimed at protecting Polish farmers.