In Poland Elections, Populists Fail to Sway Moderates, Exit Polls Suggest
WARSAW — The populist message of Poland’s governing party — steeped in religion, bound by traditional values and animated by historical grievance — failed to gain ground in Warsaw in elections on Sunday, a sign that the party may not have broadened its support among more moderate voters.
According to exit polls, the party also did not appear to gain support in most of Poland’s other major cities. But it showed strength in poor and rural communities where its message has its deepest resonance, the exit polls suggest.
The elections, for local and provincial offices, were the first nationwide since the Law and Justice party swept to power in parliamentary elections in 2015.
It could take up to two days for all the votes to be tallied and official results released. While the parties and local news media rely heavily on exit polling, conducted by the international market research firm IPSOS, they provide only a rough guide.
The polls suggest that Poland is deeply divided.
The governing party “failed to convince the liberal, metropolitan electorates that Law and Justice is a more moderate party,” said Rafal Chwedoruk, a political scientist from Warsaw University.
Late Sunday night, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of Law and Justice, focused on the overall numbers from across the country, where the exit polls suggested that its candidates secured almost one-third of the vote, compared with about one-quarter of the vote for its main opponent, Civic Coalition, an alliance of opposition parties.
The contests were for some 2,500 mayors and other local officials, as well as 47,000 aldermen.
“We have won for the fourth time and the result is a good omen for the future,” Mr. Kaczynski said.
Although he said he was pleased with Sunday’s results, he complained that the government had been beset by “fake news,” and had to compete in an often hostile environment.
“We will have to work very hard for the next year and that is my message for you,” he told the party faithful. “I would like the next election to take place in a better atmosphere.”
Next spring, there will be votes for members of the European Parliament, followed in the fall by elections for Poland’s Parliament, and a presidential race in 2020.
Before Sunday’s election, 15 of Poland’s 16 provincial governments were controlled by a coalition of Civic Platform — the largest party in Civic Coalition — and the conservative Peasants Party, which finished in third place, with about one-sixth of the vote.
Grzegorz Schetyna, leader of Civic Platform, said it had laid the groundwork to throw Law and Justice out of power next year.
“It’s going to be a long march and today we have made just the first step towards victory,” he said.
Opposition politicians appeared to have held control of the country’s major cities. In the capital, the Law and Justice candidate conceded defeat, after exit polls suggested he lost by more than 20 percentage points.
Supporters of the government see its leaders as standing up for the nation’s sovereignty and protecting traditional Christian values in this deeply Catholic country.
Opponents see a party with increasingly authoritarian tendencies, dedicated to undermining democracy in a bid to hold onto power and push through its agenda.
Lech Walesa, the leader of the labor movement known as Solidarity, which helped the country break free from communist rule, was photographed casting his vote while wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Konstytucja,” or Constitution.
The word has become a rallying cry for those who fear that the government is undermining the rule of law by taking increasing control over the judicial system.
While the government has fought a series of battles with the European Union over a host of issues and became the first member nation to be threatened with having its voting rights suspended, the vast majority of the population is still supportive of being in the bloc.
That is particularly true in the country’s largest cities.
The race that received the most attention — and the one that seemed to most clearly define the deepening fault lines between the governing party and the opposition — was the contest for mayor of Warsaw.
Patryk Jaki, the current deputy justice minister who was the Law and Justice candidate for mayor in Warsaw, placed questions about migration at the center of his campaign and railed against the governing elite, but at the same time posed next to a European Union flag in campaign ads.
While he devoted much of his campaign to targeting voters in the city’s poorer neighborhoods and promised to expand the government’s already very generous social welfare, it was not enough to overcome the deep antipathy to his party in the capital.
The Civic Platform candidate, Rafal Trzaskowski, a former secretary of state for European affairs who speaks six languages, positioned himself as a defender of Western democratic values and civility.
“I wish I could tell you that we could have done more, but it wouldn’t be true,” Mr. Jaki said in conceding defeat Sunday night. “Sometimes it’s just impossible to break through the glass ceiling. As long as you keep on fighting, you are a winner.”
Mr. Trzaskowski, in an interview with a private news channel, TVN24, said his victory spoke to the hopes and desires of the people of Warsaw, who are more interested in looking to the future rather than the past.
He said he hoped it was just the first step in setting the nation on a different course.