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Poland local elections: Voters judge Tusk's first 100 days

Jacek Lepiarz in Warsaw
April 5, 2024

Just over 100 days after taking office, Donald Tusk's center-left coalition is facing its first electoral test. With many disappointed at the pace of reform, the government cannot take anything for granted.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk holds a microphone in one hand and gesticulates with the other as he speaks at a campaign event in the run-up to Sunday's local elections, Krakow, Poland, April 3, 2024
Polish PM Donald Tusk is aware of the importance of a high turnout and is urging his supporters to vote in Sunday's local electionsImage: Lukasz Gagulski/PAP/EPA

Even though Poles will be electing local politicians on Sunday, the election will still be seen as a continuation of the long-standing duel between Poland's two greatest political rivals: Donald Tusk and Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

Last December, Tusk, the leader of the liberal Civic Platform (PO), succeeded in ousting Kaczynski's national-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party from government after eight years in power. He now heads the country's center-left coalition government.

But Kaczynski is far from admitting defeat: "We'll go on fighting, because Poland is at stake," he recently told the weekly magazine Sieci, adding that he did not want to be seen as some kind of deserter and intended to run for the post of PiS leader again in 2025.

Both sides seek to mobilize support

Tusk's victory in the parliamentary election last fall was aided by what was, by Polish standards, an unusually high turnout: just under 75%. This is why the PM is trying to mobilize his supporters in the run-up to Sunday's local elections.

PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski is surrounded by journalists as he makes his way to the headquarters of Polish state television, the leadership of which was replaced by the new coalition government, Warsaw, Poland, December 20, 2023
Opposition leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski is fighting tooth and nail to block the government's reform plansImage: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty Images

"Let us not repeat that well-known mistake from Polish history: that we win the battle and then go home and disperse," he said at a campaign event in Krakow on Wednesday, cautioning: "If we don't win, the political trend could be reversed." He called on his supporters to vote in Sunday's local elections and strengthen the liberal camp.

Kaczynski also went all out, returning to his well-worn path of anti-German rhetoric to mobilize PiS supporters. Speaking at a campaign event in Warsaw on Thursday, he said: "The option of German interests is being realized very thoroughly by Donald Tusk."

To underline his point, he listed the fact that Germany is not paying war reparations, compromises in the plans to deepen and expand the river Oder, which forms part of the border between the two countries, and alleged cuts in the country's nuclear program.

President Duda makes Tusk's job as PM difficult

Tusk's first three months in office have been a real obstacle race. Before it left government, PiS set up a number of hurdles to frustrate Tusk's attempts to return the country to the rule of law.

President Andrzej Duda, a PiS ally, is at the forefront of the resistance to the government's plans in this respect. He began by delaying the handover of power to Tusk by two months and has since been placing obstacles in the government's path wherever he can.

Poland's President Andrzej Duda holds up an index finger as he speaks into a microphone, January 18, 2024
Poland's President Andrzej Duda, an ally of the opposition PiS, is openly backing the interests of the former ruling partyImage: Hannes P Albert/dpa/picture alliance

Moreover, because the government does not have a 60% majority, it cannot overrule the president's veto.

Duda used this veto as recently as March 29, when he blocked a law that sought to allow all women over the age of 15 to obtain the morning-after pill without a prescription. The president knows he can rely on the support of the Constitutional Court in this matter as it is full of judges who are loyal to PiS.

The only way the government can now get around such vetoes is to use ordinances, which it intends to do to push through at least some of its planned reforms.

Voters disappointed by unkept electoral promises

The government's pledge to implement 100 reforms in its first 100 days has proven unrealistic under the circumstances.

Because of the difficult financial situation, plans for tax relief have had to be postponed.

A tractor decorated with banners and Polish flags is seen driving along a main thoroughfare in Warsaw and pulling a straw tank on a trailer behind it, Warsaw, Poland, February 27, 2024
The new government has faced many challenges in its first 100 days, including major and widespread protests by farmers opposed to food imports from Ukraine and the EU's Green DealImage: Sergei Gapon/AFP/Getty Images

What's more, the new coalition inherited the conflict with farmers from the outgoing government. For weeks now, Polish farmers have been protesting food imports from Ukraine and the EU's Green Deal. Although Tusk succeeded in meeting some of the farmers' demands, a radical group continues to block roads. On Tuesday, it even occupied the Agriculture Ministry.

Resistance in the judiciary

The situation is even more complicated in the judiciary, where judges and public prosecutors appointed by the PiS government are putting up fierce resistance to the government's attempts to curb their power.

The outcomes of a number of parliamentary committees have also been modest. Indeed, Kaczynski even managed to score some valuable political points when he was questioned on the previous government's alleged use of Pegasus spyware against opposition politicians.

He remained calm and competent throughout his hearing and gave legally sound reasons for refusing to answer certain questions. The members of the committee were powerless to do anything.

Coalition divided on the issue of abortion

But it's not just the opposition that is making Tusk's life difficult, so too are divisions within the coalition on the subject of abortion. While Tusk's own party and the New Left want to give women the right to terminate pregnancy up until the twelfth week, the third party in the coalition, Third Way, first wants to return to an old compromise that was in place before 2020 and allowed women to terminate a pregnancy in the event of fetal abnormalities. The people would then later be allowed to decide in a referendum on the final abortion law.

Two young women riase their hands in the air as they chant slogans. They are carrying the photo of a woman who died after being refused a medically necessary termination, Warsaw, Poland, June 14, 2023
The issue of abortion has divided Poland for years, with emotions on both sides running highImage: Kacper Pempel/REUTERS

The dispute within the coalition got so heated that lawmakers for the New Left and the Third Way ended up calling each other liars on camera. Bills relating to the liberalization of abortion regulations are due to be debated in parliament on April 11, after the first round of the local elections.

Will PiS lose its strongholds in the southeast?

But for Kaczynski and PiS, too, the local elections will be a test of the electoral mood in the country.

At stake are the majorities in 16 local parliaments across the country. In 2018, PO and PiS each won eight parliaments. Now, only the parliament in the voivodeship (province) of Podkarpackie is deemed secure for PiS. The prospects in five other voivodeships are currently 50-50.

Opinion polls suggest that Tusk's coalition will win the remaining parliaments. Major urban centers such as Warsaw, Gdansk, Poznan and Lodz are considered strongholds of the liberal camp. Only in Krakow is the election expected to be on a knife-edge.

Defeat for PiS in the southeast — a region Kaczynski considers his conservative fortress — would further sour the mood in the party and trigger a debate about the party leader.

PiS lawmaker and former Agriculture Minister Krzysztof Ardanowski predicts that his party will lose Sunday's election because of its inability to build coalitions. In his view, the only way to turn the party's fortunes around is to replace Kaczynski as leader. He will find out if he is right after the second round of the local elections on April 21.

This article was originally published in German.

A gray-haired man (Jacek Lepiarz) stands in front of bookcases full of books
Jacek Lepiarz Journalist for DW's Polish Service who specializes in German-Polish subjects