Jan Cienski in Warsaw -
Poland's opposition Law and Justice party looks to have won the country's local elections, according to exit polls released on the evening of November 16. If confirmed, that would mark the party's first electoral victory in nine years, and is a warning to the government of Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz, with the country seemingly split evenly between the two right-wing parties on an east-west axis.
Exit polls indicate that Law and Justice (PiS) took 31.5% of the vote, while the ruling Civic Platform (PO) party trailed on 27.3%. The Polish People's party, a junior member of the ruling coalition, also had a very strong showing, taking 17%. The official count remains plagued with problems and a final result is not expected until later in the week.
However, PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has already broadcast triumphant messages. He told cheering supporters: "Everything indicates that we have won ... we have won after many years."
Kopacz, who took over as prime minister from two-term leader Donald Tusk in late September, tried to put a brave face on the loss, pointing out that her party had regained some support after losing ground to PiS under Tusk in his final year in office. Civic Platform "has done its homework," she said.
The apparent outcome leaves the country more or less evenly divided ahead of the next vote, which will be a general election scheduled for October 2015. PO and PiS each won in eight regional assemblies; PiS took all of those in the east, while PO retained its hold on the more prosperous west.
The result is bound to fire up PiS supporters, many of whom had despaired that the populist conservative party would ever be capable of regaining power after a brief stint in government from 2005 to 2007. However, Kaczynski still has a long road ahead of him before he can regain national power.
Presidential elections due next spring are still likely to be easily won by the popular incumbent, Bronislaw Komorowski, who is supported by Civic Platform. The true test will come in next autumn's parliamentary elections.
While the local elections could be an indicator that PiS is able to cast its net wider, it could still struggle at the national level. The party has proven unable to win more than about a third of the vote, as the more moderate electorate in larger cities tends to be warier of the party's populist economics and showy nationalism.
The local vote on November 16 was also for mayors, and the results also suggest a split between metropolitan areas and the regions, with PiS struggling. Warsaw's PO incumbent Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz just failed to cross the 50% threshold, winning 48.8% of the ballot, while PiS challenger Jacek Sasin managed just 26%. The mayors of Lodz and Lublin were chosen in the first round of voting, with a win for the Civic Platform in both cities.
Elsewhere, many long-standing incumbents, such as independents Rafal Dudkiewicz in Wroclaw and Ryszard Grobelny in Poznan, saw their popularity fall, but are likely to retain their posts in a second round of voting.
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