Poland: Local races offer gauge of ruling party's support

Local elections on Sunday are expected to measure popular support for Poland's conservative ruling party, whose policies have produced street protests and repeated clashes with European Union leaders.

The voting for local offices — from city mayors to village councilors — also will gauge an opposition centered on the pro-EU party that governed Poland for eight years before the Law and Justice party supplanted it in 2015.

Because most municipal candidates run as representatives of their political parties, their performances will reflect on parties' strength at the national level. The two main political forces represented in the weekend races are Law and Justice and its unseated predecessor, Civic Platform.

The elections' outcomes could indicate whether the Law and Justice-led government's aggressive overhaul of the justice system, social benefits and antagonism toward the EU appeal to a majority of Poles. Critics see the party's firm grip on power and its moves to control the justice system as threats to economic growth, democracy and Poland's position in Europe.

In a sign of how much the local elections matter, Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who is believed to pull the government's strings from his office, campaigned for party candidates across the country. He promised infrastructure and improvements to enhance voters' daily lives while stumping with an intensity that would be suited for a general election.

"This will be a major test of voter support for Law and Justice, a test of whether they have been able to maintain the backing from their 2015 win" or increase it, Warsaw University political scientist Anna Materska-Sosnowska said.

The big race to watch is the mayoral election in Warsaw. Civic Platform now has control of City Hall in the capital, as well as many other cities. Law and Justice has put up as its candidate a deputy justice minister who has tried to prove real estate mismanagement by Warsaw's current administration.

"It will be a great defeat, an absolute failure for Civic Platform" if it loses mayor positions in the big cities, Materska-Sosnowska said.

Opinion polls give the euroskeptic Law and Justice an approval rating of 40 percent in the otherwise strongly pro-European nation of some 37 million people. About two million Poles emigrated — mainly to Germany and Britain — after Poland joined the EU in 2004.

Governing under the slogan "Good Change," Kaczynski's party has ploughed through the education system, subjected state media to political control and revised voting regulations, as well as overhauled the judiciary.

The EU has said the judicial changes, which included lowering the retirement age for Supreme Court justices so many sitting judges had to step down early, violated the rule of law. It launched an unprecedented sanctioning procedure against Poland.

But public benefits that pay 500 zlotys ($135) per child each month to families with two or more children seem to be the main factor behind the high and steady support Law and Justice enjoys, according to Kazimierz Kik, a political scientist at Kielce University.

The local elections are the first in a series of political barometers. Elections to the national parliament and the European Parliament are set for next year, a presidential election in 2020.

Full official results are expected late Tuesday or Wednesday.