Poles are voting in local elections on October 21 to decide who will be in charge of their districts, towns, and regions in the next five years. But the importance of the vote goes far beyond that: the outcome might augur a broad political change in the currently isolated former champion of reforms and democracy.
The vote will test the strength of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party after it leapt to power in 2015, promising deep-reaching reforms of the state, which, PiS claimed, had left too many people in neglect and without benefits of economic transformation.
For the opposition, the election is an opportunity, at last, to throw a spanner in the works of PiS, which – for all the divisive moves at home and falling out with the European Union that followed the judiciary reform – has run too well for liberals and the left.
Whoever wins, they will want to make the momentum last until 2019 when the next general election is due.
PiS’ campaign has been simple: give the government credit for the ongoing economic boom and instil in voters a conviction that better times are only ahead if the party also wins power on the local level.
The opposition’s bottom line is that PiS must be prevented from making further gains. Local governments are the last line of defending democracy in Poland, the opposition says.
Some recent polls suggest a high mobilisation of voters, which could help the opposition if turnout eventually proves higher than 45%-47% in the previous three elections.
Still, party polls point to PiS as favourite in the key part of the Sunday vote – the election to regional parliaments that are responsible for a substantial part of disbursement of EU funding.
That said, winning the most votes may not guarantee PiS a majority in regional legislatures. A good result for the liberal Citizens Coalition (KO) – a combo of Civic Platform and Nowoczesna – as well as left-leaning SLD and agrarians from PSL could position those parties to form coalitions and block PiS.
Poland’s local election is a complicated affair, in which voting also takes place for city and town mayors, and municipal and county councils.
Mayoral races are important for parties because of prestige and ease with which those personal battles could be used to push the party agenda and build momentum for the general election next year.
Here, PiS does not look good. The ruling party candidates – or independents endorsed by PiS – stand a chance to win in just three out of 22 mayoral races in the biggest Polish cities. Anything better than that would be a surprise.
The most prestigious rivalry in Warsaw will most likely end in victory for KO candidate Rafal Trzaskowski who is expected to beat PiS’ Patryk Jaki.
In the week prior to the voting, the campaign has become radicalised. Jaki suggested that a win for Trzaskowski could lead to the government blocking EU funds for infrastructure investments in Warsaw.
Both PiS and KO have also made use of secret recordings of top politicians and businessmen, made illegally at a Warsaw restaurant in 201X, to discredit one another.
PiS also caused outrage by releasing a video attacking Civic Platform for plans to allow refugees – by which PiS means not just refugees per se but immigrants in general – into Poland and blaming them for crime and terrorism.
Some observers suggested the unabashed racist scaremongering of the video hinted at growing nervousness in the PiS’ camp about the election result, perhaps evident in internal polls commissioned by the party.
PiS has 31% of support in a poll by Kantar Public for PAP, published on October 18. The KO coalition follows with 24%. The loose anti-systemic group Kukiz 15 and the agrarian party PSL poll at 8% each while centre-left SLD has 7%. The figures are countrywide and will differ from region to region, with eastern Polish regions having tended to vote PiS in the past.