While it may seem odd, this single mayoral race could say a lot about the fate of liberal democracy in Poland. PiS, which took over the Polish government in 2015, has politicized democratic institutions like the state media and overhauled the judiciary, rapidly reshaping the country in the process. As PiS continues to clash with the EU over controversial judicial reforms, the campaign in Warsaw has become both a high-profile battleground and a metaphor for two contrasting visions of Poland’s future.
Sunday’s elections in Warsaw and across the country offer the first real test for the three-year-old PiS-led government. They will also help set the tone for the European Parliament elections in May, Polish parliamentary elections next fall, and the presidential election in 2020.
“Warsaw is a kind of laboratory in which PiS tries to replicate its success,” Jacek Kucharczyk, the president of the Institute of Public Affairs, a Warsaw-based think tank, explained. “The results will be an important indicator of where the public mood is.”
These elections, and the three that will follow, will help answer some of the existential questions facing Poland. Further victories for PiS will likely embolden the party to continue forging ahead with its populist reforms and push the country further down the path to a Hungary-style “illiberal” democracy. But should the opposition prevail, it could be an early sign that PiS’s reign is a temporary course correction rather than a permanent change for Poland.
The race is also symbolic because Jaki and Trzaskowski represent their respective party’s image. Jaki, an outspoken deputy justice minister, seeks to portray himself as a nonideological populist, and has railed against the so-called Warsaw elites. Trzaskowski, a former secretary of state for European affairs who speaks six languages, talks about defending liberal democracy and ensuring Warsaw remains open and pro-European.
For Jaki, along with his party, Warsaw would be a win for the common man and a sign that PiS’s reforms, ranging from its now-infamous judiciary overhaul to increased social benefits for families, can gain traction even in liberal Warsaw.
Sebastian Kaleta, a city-council candidate and a Jaki supporter, said the fact that he made the race competitive in liberal Warsaw in the first place “is a signal for Europe that democracy is fully healthy in Poland, because our opponent wants to say to the world that there’s a problem with Poland.”
For Trzaskowski, winning would mean a chance to fight back against PiS. “I really want this city to be this island of freedom in the midst of what PiS is doing to our country,” he said.
Like most right-wing populist parties across Europe, PiS thrives in rural and suburban areas but has struggled in urban centers like Warsaw. For opposition parties like Trzaskowski’s Civic Platform, local governments in these areas—which retain a great deal of autonomy—have provided at least some opportunities to check PiS’s national-level reforms.