An Election in Poland’s Capital Could Shape the Future of Populism

“Warsaw is a kind of laboratory in which PiS tries to replicate its success.”

Patryk Jaki, the United Right (Law and Justice (PiS), Solidarna Prawica, and Polska Razem) candidate for mayor in Warsaw, speaks as he meets with his supporters during an election meeting in Warsaw, Poland, on September 19, 2018. (Kacper Pempel / Reuters)

WARSAW—On a chilly Friday evening in Poland’s capital, the mayoral candidate Patryk Jaki took the stage in Praga Park to make a final pitch to voters. The location had symbolic resonance: Warsaw’s Praga district is home to many low-income residents who feel stigmatized and left behind by their increasingly prosperous and cosmopolitan city. This, in turn, helps makes it friendly territory for Jaki’s Law and Justice (PiS), the right-wing Euroskeptic populist party currently in control of Poland.

“People from the town hall keep humiliating and spitting on us,” Jaki said, as his supporters chanted to drown out a small group of protesters. “They don’t want us to take over the town hall, because they’re afraid of what we’ll find there.”

Earlier that day, Jaki’s opponent and the race’s frontrunner, Rafal Trzaskowski of the center-right Civic Platform, had been closing his campaign on a much different note. Though he focuses his messaging on Warsaw-specific issues, Trzaskowski said in an interview, people who stop him on the street want to talk about democracy, about the European Union, and about the rule of law in Poland. “PiS has done so much to undermine our democracy that the streets of Warsaw were witnessing so much protest,” he said.

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.

But Sunday’s elections could very well chip away at the opposition’s local advantage. While the opposition controls 15 of Poland’s 16 regional assemblies, recent polling for the Polish newspaper Fakt suggests PiS could take over as many as six more.

These local elections come at a time when Poland’s government is locked in a fight with the EU over the country’s political future. Last week, the European Court of Justice demanded that Poland halt an initiative that would force dozens of Poland’s supreme-court judges into early retirement. The initiative was PiS’s latest attempt to overhaul the country’s judicial system by effectively allowing the party to remove politically independent judges.

That announcement followed the EU’s unprecedented move last December to trigger a so-called Article 7 procedure against Poland aimed at blocking its efforts to hinder judicial independence—a move Brussels has made only twice (most recently, against Hungary last month).

Jaki, the second-in-command at Poland’s justice ministry, “epitomizes everything which is bad about PiS,” Trzaskowski said. “He’s the most ideological minister of this government: He’s responsible for the politicization of the courts, he’s responsible for this law on remembrance which created such ripples all around the world, he was using crazy ideological language.”

The government’s actions have divided Polish voters. “Right now we have really two Polands,” said Milosz Hodun, an adviser to the liberal Nowoczesna Party, which is a coalition partner of Civic Platform. “There are 40 percent who really like what’s going on, 40 percent who really don’t like it, and 20 percent who don’t care.”

Polling suggests Trzaskowski will most likely prevail in Warsaw, though he and Jaki are expected to advance to a second round in November.

What’s less clear is the extent to which PiS will make inroads at the local and regional levels. Kucharczyk, of the Institute of Public Affairs, said PiS could be emboldened by either possibility: A strong result across the country would further encourage the party in its efforts to weaken democratic institutions, while less-than-stellar support at the polls may spur it to cry foul and work to diminish the power of the now-influential local governments.

“In some ways it is a lose-lose situation from the point of view of Polish democracy,” Kucharczyk said. “It will be rough one way or the other.”