After three tumultuous and uncertain years in Poland, the Poles had the first opportunity to review their past choices and cast a ballot in local elections on Sunday 21 October.
The elections brought 54.81% of voters what makes it the highest turnout in Poland’s local elections since they were first held in 1990. The competition between two major parties – the Law and Justice and Civic Platform – had been fiercely used to test the majority ruling Law and Justice right-wing government under, de facto, Jaroslaw Kaczynski direction.
The municipal elections were for offices ranging from village councillors to city mayors.
The Civic Coalition, comprising of the major opposition parties including Civic Platform and Modern. along with minor left-wing groupings, received 24.7% of votes and, former coalition partner of Civic Platform, agrarian party the Polish People’s Party took 16.6%.
Despite the Law and Justice taking 32.3% of votes, the result is much lower compared to the 2015 parliamentary election, however, higher than in the last 2014 local elections. The runoff elections on 4 November are, most likely, only to confirm the recent party position. Particularly, in larger cities where none of the Law and Justice candidates managed to secure a mayoral position.
The Warsaw mayoral election was, in fact, the biggest blow to the ruling party as Civic Coalition candidate Rafal Trzaskowski won the majority of support in the first round. The vote clearly shows that there is no room for the governing party in major cities with strong international ties, cosmopolitan and much more liberal lifestyles.
The true political contest, however, concerned 16 regional assemblies. The Law and Justice managed to win the vote in nine of them. Those were more religious, traditional, and poorer regions of the east. Nevertheless, all the evidence is that the ruling party will end up governing a minority of them due to the lack of coalition prospects. Needless to say, this result still indicates better outcome owing to the fact that in the last four years the party controlled only one regional assembly. This number can now increase up to six.
The local elections are, frequently, one of the least popular among the Poles but, this time, it was quite the opposite. The vote was designated to confirm the governing party’s policies and, therefore, attracted a much larger chunk of society, formerly highly inactive.
On the one hand, the takeover of national media and turning it into large-scale propaganda, the threats to the rule of law due to replacing judges of the Constitutional Tribunal with the party’s supporters, the clashes with EU leaders, the attempts to tighten abortion laws, and the ban on refugees trying to enter the country. On the other hand, however, the continuous boom in the economy and the nationwide social policies that benefited the poorest, have jeopardised segments of the Polish society.
The deepening gap between urban and rural voters is becoming more striking. Social welfare policies that have had stronger effects in smaller towns and rural areas and, simultaneously, their anti-immigration messages and social conservatism is juxtaposed with the liberals of larger cities and urban areas. Due to the polarisation of Polish politics, the remaining parties have become irrelevant in the contest for power.
The Law and Justice is certainly not a lost cause – their result has improved since 2014. Even though the Civic Coalition along with its former coalition partner the Polish People’s Party obtained, altogether, more votes that the ruling party, such scenario is less likely in the general election. The Polish People’s Party tends to receive half of the support in the parliamentary election.
At the same time, however, the Law and Justice did not obtain a full public support after three years in power. Despite the thriving economy, the EU and democratic values are an inseparable part of the Polish society. The governing party will, most likely, have to find a way to cooperate with the coalition after the 2019 parliamentary election.
The municipal elections indicate the start of an election marathon that will end in 2020.