Jan Cienski in Warsaw -
Poland's opposition leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has gone from leader to loser in the country's convoluted local elections, but the disputed outcome leaves him in a strong position to fire up his aggrieved electoral base.
Kaczynski's rightwing Law and Justice (PiS) party appeared to score well in the November 16 local election. Exit polls showed the party taking 31.5% of the vote, about 4 percentage points ahead of the governing Civic Platform party, representing PiS's best electoral performance in nine years.
But over the last week, Poland's vote counting system system broke down, victim of bad planning and faulty programming. When the results were finally announced over last weekend, PiS had taken only 26.85% of the vote, a fraction ahead of the 26.36% scored by Civic Platform. Civic Platform actually did slightly better in winning seats in the country's 16 regional assemblies, taking 179 to 171 for Law and Justice.
The big surprise was the Polish People's party, junior members of the governing coalition, which took a record 23.68% of the vote and won 157 regional seats, up from 93 four years ago.
The delayed vote count, the surprising discrepancy between the exit poll and the actual result and the high number of invalid ballots – 18% compared to 12% four years ago – had Kaczynski crying foul.
He called the election results “untrue, unreliable, not to say faked", adding that his party would contest the outcome in court and in the European Parliament.
Ewa Kopacz, the prime minister, whose position was strengthened by Civic Platform's better-than-predicted performance, denounced Kaczynski's criticisms as “destroying the foundations of democracy”.
The vote counting process is being investigated by Poland's government watchdog agency, and the whole commission which runs Poland's elections has resigned.
One analyst speculated that the Polish People's party did so well because its candidates were on the first page of a confusing booklet of party lists, and that some voters could have voted for the party by mistake. Even party leaders seemed taken aback by their unexpected success.
In the end, PiS will be in charge of only one region – the same it ran before the election, while the ruling coalition will be in charge of the rest of the country. PiS is not widely trusted by other Polish political parties, which are generally wary of joining in coalitions with a party that has the reputation of destroying its partners.
Although the result is a short-term disappointment for Kaczynski, it does allow him to create a narrative for his supporters ahead of next year's presidential and parliamentary elections. PiS has long portrayed the Polish state as fundamentally dysfunctional and corrupt, the result of a misbegotten deal with the ailing communists a quarter century ago.
He can now point to the obvious problems in running the elections as an example of the incompetence in the way the country is run, as well as spinning tale of conspiracies which snatched PiS's victory away. That promises to make the political invective over the next year even more bitter than usual.
“The level of hypocrisy coming from the prime minister is such that it is unclear if this is a person worth speaking to,” Kaczynski said in an interview with the Wprost news weekly, comparing Kopacz to an odious spokesman for the communist regime during martial law more than three decades ago.
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