Poles go to municipal elections in first political test for Tusk’s coalition

Poles go to municipal elections in first political test for Tusk’s coalition
For Tusk the local elections are about pushing PiS further into a corner from which it will never emerge to win power again. / bne IntelliNews
By Wojciech Kosc in Warsaw April 5, 2024

Local elections in Poland this Sunday will be the first test of where the country’s key political forces are nearly six months after the general election last October ended the era of the radical right-wing government of Law and Justice (PiS).

For the liberal-left four-party coalition government headed by Prime Minister Donald Tusk the local elections are about pushing PiS further into a corner from which it will never emerge to win power again. 

Predictably, PiS will still win a region or two, a few mayoral position in second-tier towns, and will safely get home in several municipal councils, mostly in Poland’s east. But a poor showing overall, Tusk hopes, will instil doubt about whether PiS can fight back.

Tusk has campaigned for his party’s candidates fairly heavily in recent weeks, underscoring the achievements of his government, mainly the unblocking of billions in EU funding – which will ultimately serve to improve Poles’ local environs, the overarching goal of local elections – but also the need to dismantle the system PiS had built.

For PiS, the goal is to show that the October defeat was but a lost battle and the party still has what it takes to win. A good result  on the regional level will put the party on a winning path in June’s EU elections and improve the chances of a PiS candidate in the presidential election in 2025.

Local elections are a complicated affair in Poland. People vote to elect councillors in their municipalities (be they rural or city ones), the counties, which are a middle tier of local administration, and in the regions. 

The regional vote is perhaps the most consequential for countrywide politics. Regional councils play an important role in distributing EU funds and are a key source of local party patronage.

Sixteen regional parliaments are the only local government tier contested mainly on national party lines and the aggregated vote share in regional elections is the key barometer of party support. 

Recent polls show that Tusk’s Civic Coalition averages nearly 31% of the regional vote, followed by PiS at just over 28%.

Five years ago, PiS won 34% of the regional vote, which gave it an outright majority in six assemblies and control of two others via a defector from the opposition in one and a coalition with independent councillors in another. 

“However, because Law and Justice has weak coalition potential if the party does not win outright majorities it will struggle to find partners to retain control of these authorities, even it if remains the largest party,” wrote Professor Aleks Szczerbiak of Sussex University in a recent blog post on Polish politics.

Tusk’s national government coalition partners, the conservative Third Way and the Left, are over 12% and 9% in the polls, respectively, which should be enough to wrestle at least some regional parliaments from PiS.

Overall, “one would expect the newly elected [national] governing parties to do well, and recently defeated right-wing opposition to struggle”, Szczerbiak wrote.

But the ruling coalition has its problems, too. As the Tusk government marks 100 days in office, divisions have begun showing in the coalition, such as over the liberalisation of Poland’s draconian abortion regulations.

The Third Way is the main obstacle to the liberalisation – which will be debated in the parliament next week only after the election – and it might cost it plenty of women votes this Sunday, some polls have shown. That, in turn, could determine whether the coalition parties actually win control over some regional parliaments.

Somewhat less in focus will be the mayoral vote in towns with over 100,000 people, although they include some prestigious contests with a bearing on national politics, especially the Warsaw mayor vote.

In Warsaw, the incumbent mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, a high-ranking official in Tusk’s Civic Coalition, is expected to hand his opponents a heavy defeat, easily reaching the 50% plus one vote minimum needed to secure another term in office without having to go into a run-off vote two weeks later.

Polling stations will open at 7 am on April 7. The regional vote exit polls and some key results from the mayoral votes in biggest cities are expected right after the voting ends at 9 pm.