Sunday's vote will show whether Polish political winds still favor the ruling populist Law and Justice party. The liberal opposition is hoping for winds of change, and they are counting on Poland's cities for support.
Thousands of mayoral, city and municipal council, and regional parliamentary candidates are standing for election across the country on Sunday, and voter mobilization is set to be greater than it was four years ago. In 2014, 47 percent of registered voters went to the polls. This year, it's estimated that some 75 percent will cast ballots.
The election is being seen as indicator of Polish support toward the ruling right-wing populist PiS party. On the national level, the PiS government has instituted controversial judicial reforms, earning the ire of the European Union and spurring protests, but encountering little effective liberal opposition.
Many PiS-aligned regional politicians are facing off against liberal PO ones in Sunday's vote, and both camps will be hoping for a good result to buoy them into next year's legislative and EU elections.
Five days before local elections, lines were long in front of many of Warsaw's city administrative buildings. The reason: It was the last chance for temporary Warsaw residents to register to vote.
Among those waiting was an elderly couple that will soon be moving here from Poznan. They were registering to cast their ballots in their future hometown. And they already knew who they will be voting for. They want the national-conservative Patryk Jaki, the sitting deputy justice minister, to be the Warsaw's next mayor. "He is the only candidate that will help senior citizens. It's something he really cares about," the man said in a TV interview.
A young law student from Bialystok is putting her faith in Jaki's challenger, the liberal Civic Platform (PO) politician Rafal Trzaskowski: "This election is the only chance liberals have to survive — here in the cities," she said.
An emotional finale — and a warning
In the final sprint to win control of Warsaw City Hall, Patryk Jaki — a native of Opole in southwest Poland — is promising new subway lines, a new high-tech campus and new centers for senior citizens. He is also playing on voters' emotions.
Politician Piotr Guzial, whom Jaki already sees as "his" deputy mayor, has taken on the role of "bad cop" and openly threatened Jaki's liberal opponent via Twitter: "If Trzaskowski wins, Warsaw will be cut off from federal funding for subways, bridges and streets for years because the PiS government won't trust the PO."
This direct threat caused a furor among liberals, who decried it as an improper use of public funds for party purposes. Jaki himself further fueled the flames by explaining that the federal government would not finance "Trzaskowski's bridges" because the liberal only wants pedestrian and bicycle crossings. The message was crystal clear: if you are not on our side, you simply won't get any money for investments.
The 33-year-old archconservative Jaki is no stranger to controversy. Earlier this year, in his role as deputy justice minister, he caused a stir when he published a list of pedophiles online. Critics said the move could have led to vigilante justice.
Read more: Poland: The high price of emigration
Jaki's opponent Trzaskowski was formerly a European parliamentarian and deputy minister in the Foreign Office. He comes from a prominent family of Warsaw intellectuals, and has been accused of being elitist.
That has led Trzaskowski to attempt to change his image, trading in his smart suits and polished language for plaid shirts — a move designed to make him appear more like a man of the people. Every day he heads out onto the streets of Warsaw to meet citizens who tell him what concerns them most. He tells them that if they vote for him, they will no longer have to pay for day care or public transportation.
The 46-year-old is a member of the splintered left-leaning liberal coalition known as Civic Platform. The PO is indeed no more than a marriage of convenience between several different parties that were bitter enemies until very recently. Although they have reached consensus on a number of campaign promises, such as improving local infrastructure or building playgrounds, many Poles feel it's unlikely the movement can remain intact for much longer.
Thrilling duels in the cities
Though nationalist-conservative candidates and electoral alliances led by the ruling PiS enjoy overwhelming voter support across large swaths of the country, liberal opposition candidates enjoy advantages in Poland's major cities, such as Warsaw, Gdansk, Krakow and Wroclaw.
The final duel in the race to become mayor of Gdansk, for example, will be fought out by two liberal candidates: popular incumbent Pawel Adamowicz and Jaroslaw Walesa, the son of former President Lech Walesa. Krakow's sitting mayor, Jacek Majchrowski, looks to have a better prospects of retaining his post than PiS challenger Malgorzata Wassermann has of unseating him.
Districts where no one wins an outright majority on Sunday will have runoff elections on November 4. This second round could offer voters even more spectacular personality-driven fights.
New voting law
This will also be the first municipal election held since the governing majority passed a new voting law in 2017. A ballot no longer has to be marked with the traditional "X." Other forms are now recognized, the only stipulation being that "two lines cross" one another.
The federal election commission is divided as to how such marks should be interpreted. It could, for instance, be very difficult to determine a voter's intention if they try to cross out an initial choice to vote for someone else. Critics say the new system invites vote manipulation. Another new aspect of the 2017 law is that it sets a two-term limit for municipal officials.