The Warsaw mayoral race as a metaphor for Polish polarization

Poland has made headlines for the illiberal reforms of its ruling political party, the right-wing populist Law and Justice (PiS). Just last week, the European Court of Justice pushed back on PiS’s reforms to the Polish judiciary system, which would have allowed the government to force independent (i.e., not specifically government-friendly) judges into early retirement.

Sunday’s local elections across the country were the first electoral test for PiS since they took office in 2015 — and one race in particular, the campaign for Warsaw’s mayor, felt very much like a metaphor for the two competing visions of Poland’s political future. The race pitted Rafal Trzaskowski, of the center-right Civic Platform, against PiS candidate Patryk Jaki. Trzaskowski is a former secretary of state for European affairs who speaks six languages and talks about defending liberal democracy; Jaki is a firebrand who speaks in blunt terms about challenging the elites.

Ultimately, exit polls showed Trzaskowski winning the race outright with 54 percent, meaning he was able to avoid continuing to a runoff election against Jaki. Elsewhere in Poland, PiS increased its vote share over the 2014 local elections but hardly made the kind of electoral gains that would have signaled broad support for the government.

With three other major elections coming up here — European elections next May, parliamentary elections next fall and a presidential election in 2020 — many observers had looked to Sunday’s elections as a signal of what’s to come. Ultimately, even if it gave hope to the opposition, they further underscored the deep divisions within the Polish electorate.

Our piece, for The Atlanticwas published yesterday. (Thanks to the International Alumni Center / the Bosch Alumni Network for the “learning exchange grant” that made this possible!)

Warsaw mayoral candidate Rafal Trzaskowski’s campaign bus on his final 24-hour campaign sprint
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