Elections test popularity of Poland's government

Poles voted Sunday in local elections expected to reward the government's reluctance to trim the welfare state in the EU's largest new member — the only one in Europe to avoid a recession.

The government led by Prime Minister Donald Tusk and his pro-business Civic Platform party has privatized some state-run enterprises, but overall has not met its promise to trim back the welfare state.

That policy over the last three years seems to have bolstered the government's popularity because it means Poland has avoided painful cuts during the global economic crisis, boding well for Civic Platform in local elections and in national elections next year.

Sunday's vote for mayors, city council members and other officials is the first round in the election. In many cases, results will only be determined in a runoff vote in two weeks.

Poland's economy slowed during the financial crisis but the nation was the only one in Europe to avoid a recession, another factor which has given Tusk's governing team a boost.

However, the budget deficit has grown, prompting the government to plan an unpopular 1 percentage point increase in the value added tax to 23 percent on many goods and services.

Due to Europe's economic turmoil and the growing deficit, the government also has postponed plans to adopt the euro currency. Though many business owners favor the currency change, many Poles oppose it because they fear it will lead to a rise in prices.

Opinion polls ahead of Sunday's voting indicated that Tusk's Civic Platform remains the country's most popular party.

The election also is a test for the main opposition group, Law and Justice. The conservative and nationalist party was founded by the late President Lech Kaczynski — who was killed in a plane crash this year — and his twin brother Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who remains its leader.

Kaczynski has clashed with some of his closest party supporters in recent weeks. He has expelled two close aides, and several others have left in protest, raising questions about whether the turmoil will weaken support for the party.

A national election for parliament must be held by late 2011, but no date has been set.