Poland's ruling populists see power, appeal checked

Poland's populist ruling party has seen its fortunes turn after nearly three years of aggressive governing and vast popularity. First, the European Union's top court checked a key element of the party's overhaul of the courts. Local elections Sunday revealed limits to its appeal.

Law and Justice claimed victory in the regional assembly elections based on exit polls that showed it as the top vote-getter. Its regional assembly candidates Sunday were projected to have received 33 percent support cumulatively.

However, the opposition was projected to make spectacular inroads to mayor's offices in the capital and other prestigious cities.

The results in the central European nation played out amid the broader clash in Europe between nativist, anti-migrant forces and liberal forces that favor more openness and a strengthened European Union.

Ahead of the local elections, Law and Justice ran a campaign ad alleging the centrist opposition would open the door to refugees and with them, rapes and other violent crimes. It is the kind of tactic that helped the conservative party rise to power in 2015, when it gained nearly 38 percent of the parliamentary vote.

But in Warsaw and other cities, activists have staged repeated anti-government demonstrations against new laws giving the executive and legislative branches new powers over the courts. The campaign message did not resonate -- and might have backfired -- with urban voters.

"The exit polls indicate the limited appeal of the authoritarian populism that Law and Justice stands for," said Jacek Kucharczyk, the director of the Institute of Public Affairs, a think tank in Warsaw.

"The party has lost voters in comparison to 2015 despite the fact that it turned public media into a propaganda mouthpiece" and had other factors working in its favor, including a booming economy, Kucharczyk argued.

A level of support like it secured Sunday, if repeated in other elections over the next 18 months, could threaten Law and Justice's pursuit of even greater power. The next parliamentary election is scheduled for fall 2019, the next presidential election for spring 2020.

The projected results from Sunday's voting indicate it would have trouble increasing its seats in parliament next year and almost certainly fail to obtain the super majority needed to push through constitutional amendments. Party leaders want that power to reshape the nation of 37 million people to fit their "Poland first" worldview.

Official election results are expected Tuesday or Wednesday, but if the exit polls hold up, a liberal coalition of opposition parties led by the centrist Civic Platform, which governed the country from 2007-2015, won 26.7 percent in the regional assemblies.

Most critically, the coalition's candidates won landslide victories in the first round of mayoral elections in Warsaw, Lodz and Poznan. In many other cities, runoffs of the two top vote getters in mayoral races will take place on Nov. 4, and the opposition is favored to win heavily.

The results underline how deeply divided Poland is between liberal cities and the conservative rural areas, and between the more liberal western half of the country and the conservative east. Studies also show that less educated voters tend to vote in larger numbers for the ruling nationalists.

Ipsos, the agency the carried out the exit polls, put turnout at 53.4 percent, a historic high in local elections since Poland threw off communism in 1989, suggesting many have been mobilized in these divisive times.

In another possible setback for the ruling party, Europe's top court Friday ordered the Polish government to suspend a law that lowered the mandatory retirement age for justices and opened the way for a purge of the Supreme Court.

The European Court of Justice ordered the reinstatement of about two dozen judges who were forced into early retirements. Six of them showed up to work on Monday. A court spokesman said all were expected to return this week.

The European Commission, the EU's executive branch, asked for the injunction while the Court of Justice considers its challenge to the age cap as a violation of EU laws on judicial independence and the right to a fair trial. A ruling in the main proceedings is expected later.