WARSAW,. Poles vote in a regional election today with gains expected for the ruling eurosceptic Law and Justice (PiS) party, whose nationalist rhetoric and institutional reforms have fuelled a deepening rift with the European Union.
PiS swept into power in 2015 on a promise of voter-pleasing welfare bumps, social conservatism and more state say in the economy. The party remains broadly popular, despite accusations at home and abroad of a shift towards authoritarian rule.
The election is part of a larger struggle over Europe’s future, as Brexit and Hungary’s Viktor Orban, a PiS ally, shake up the European Union and right-wing parties make gains across the continent.
While it dominates national politics, PiS controls a small minority of city halls, and has a majority in only one provincial assembly out of 16.
If successful in gaining seats, PiS will have better access to local funding, a factor which could affect parliamentary elections in 2019. It will also have more influence over schools and theatres, important tools in the party’s nationalist agenda.
PiS opposes abortion, contraception and IVF fertility treatment and wants culture and education to be more conservative.
“Dear citizens, if you want more money to reach here for infrastructure and industry, then vote for PiS candidates,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told voters during a rally in Kielce in southern Poland on Oct. 13.
Opinion polls show PiS could win 33-37 per cent of votes for provincial assembly members. A coalition of centrist opposition parties, the Civic Platform and Nowoczesna, is forecast to capture about 24 per cent of the vote. Post-election coalitions could affect how many assemblies PiS will control.
The centrist candidate for Warsaw mayor, Rafal Trzaskowski, 46, is seen winning 41-42 per cent of vote today, and securing the office in a second round of voting on Nov. 4, beating PiS’ Patryk Jaki, 33.
A spike in PiS support in cities, traditionally centrist strongholds, would show its brand of populism gaining broader appeal and would be a major upset for the Civic Platform, the home party of European Council President Donald Tusk.
A good result for PiS would add to concerns in Brussels ahead of European Parliament elections in May by boosting eurosceptic groups that oppose efforts at closer EU integration.
Underlining divisions, the EU’s top court ordered the Warsaw government on Friday to suspend an overhaul of the country’s Supreme Court and reinstate judges forced into early retirement.
The moves were part of broader reforms of the judiciary, which PiS says are crucial to making the system more fair and efficient, but opponents criticise as an attack on democratic checks and balances.
Throughout his campaign, Warsaw’s mayoral candidate Jaki said he sides with ordinary people against what he describes as an arrogant Civic Platform municipal elite.
Trzaskowski, a long-time EU emissary for his party, says he wants his native Warsaw to remain “open, tolerant and European”.
He accuses the PiS-run justice ministry, where Jaki is a deputy minister and which is at the heart of the government’s conflict with Brussels over court reforms, of policies that could lead Poland to leaving the EU.
“It’s a straight road towards taking Poland out of the EU,” he said on Wednesday.
Like Orban’s Fidesz party in Hungary, PiS argues the powers of Brussels should be reined in, and accuses EU institutions of meddling in Poland’s internal affairs.
“It’s depressing that the EU is so engaged in our politics. I don’t think it should,” said Agnieszka Zdziuch, a 44-year-old office worker in the town of Staszow in southern Poland.
Voting starts at 7am local time (0500 GMT) and ends at 9pm, exit poll results are expected shortly afterwards. — Reuters