Poland votes at ground zero of European struggle with populism

A woman rides a bicycle alongside campaign posters of Rafal Trzaskowski and Patryk Jaki, the two main candidates running for Warsaw mayor in a local election in Poland, in Warsaw, on Oct 18, 2018.
A woman rides a bicycle alongside campaign posters of Rafal Trzaskowski and Patryk Jaki, the two main candidates running for Warsaw mayor in a local election in Poland, in Warsaw, on Oct 18, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

WARSAW (BLOOMBERG) - Poland is voting in local elections that will test the conservative ruling party's grip on public opinion as it rattles the country against its European Union allies.

The nation of 38 million is ground zero in the battle between populist leaders rebelling against the bloc's liberal, multi-cultural norms and mainstream forces who say they've done more than any other EU government to undermine democracy. On Sunday (Oct 21), Poles will pick local and regional councils as well as city mayors.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has canvassed the country with a "Poland First" message, painting the pro-European opposition as out-of-touch elites. His Law & Justice party has bolstered support via handouts and hikes to pensions and state wages, as well as non-stop coverage on state-controlled media lauding the government and criticising its opponents.

While it will probably win the most votes countrywide, the party faces a tough battle to win more of Poland's 16 regions, as other parties join forces to keep it out of power. Law & Justice currently control just one regional assembly. A flop at the ballot box may lead it to loosen fiscal strings ahead of general elections next year, MBank SA analysts said last Friday as the yield on Poland's benchmark 10-year bond increased to a one-week high of 3.26 per cent.

Opponents have decried Law & Justice's confrontations with Brussels, particularly over sweeping changes to the courts that they say could push Poland out of the EU. Mr Morawiecki said that is nonsense and called on Poles to trust his "patriotic" agenda.

"Elections in large cities are driven largely by the main political themes, including a divide over the independence of the judiciary," said Mr Marcin Zaborowski, senior associate at the Visegrad Insight think thank.

"Poles are benefiting from a robust economy, but there's a question if they're happy about rising xenophobia and euro-scepticism."

Balloting stations close at 9pm, with exit polls expected shortly after. Key contests will be waged in major cities, the bastions of pro-European sentiment. While Law & Justice currently controls none of the biggest, its candidate in Warsaw, Mr Patryk Jaki, has drawn close to Civic Platform rival Rafal Trzaskowski and is set to force a Nov 4 runoff if neither wins at least half of the votes.

Kindred spirits with Hungarian leader Viktor Orban in his drive to create "illiberal democracies" on the continent, the party has vowed to remould Poland to "re-Christianise" Europe while refusing to take any of the millions of immigrants flooding into the EU.

"We are convincing our European partners toward our views while maintaining good relations," Mr Morawiecki said last week in Brussels. "We love the EU and the EU loves us. All citizens understand that this a tough game where every nation is defending its interests."

LEAKED TAPES

Civic Platform is banking on a series of rulings from EU institutions - including a European Court of Justice order for the country to immediately suspend changes to the Constitutional Court - to spur voters to their cause. Pro-EU sentiment in Poland is among the highest in the bloc.

Another factor that may undermine Law & Justice is the leak of recordings of Mr Morawiecki, a former banker, made in 2013 when he ran the Polish branch of Banco Santander SA.

In the tapes, he is heard saying that Poles one day might be grateful to "work for a bowl of rice" while ranting about a Polish racing driver whose near-death crash could save his former bank sponsorship money. Similar secretly recorded conversations of his political opponents paved the way for his party to win 2015 elections.

As the scandal deepens, Law & Justice has returned to the anti-Muslim strategy that helped deliver it to power. Abandoning a weeks-old strategy of appealing to moderate voters, it issued an ad alleging opposition parties would allow immigrants to flood over the border and cause unrest in Polish cities.

"It's a clear turn in the strategy, and a call mobilising the core constituency to vote," Mr Zaborowski said.