The recent local elections in Poland have once again been dominated by the country’s two main right-wing parties: Law and Justice Party (PiS) and Citizens’ Platform (PO). They have also underlined the present weakness of the Polish left, which was further marginalised during these elections.
However, the Polish local elections have revealed the limitations of both PiS and PO and point towards the potential for the development of a new united left-wing force in Polish politics.
For nearly a decade and a half Polish politics has been monopolised by PiS and PO. After PO governed for two terms, PiS formed the first majority government in modern Polish history in 2015. The party has combined conservatism and authoritarianism, with some social welfare spending that has cemented its position as the country’s leading party. The main opposition to PiS has failed to propose any positive coherent alternative and instead they have defined themselves almost exclusively through being ‘anti-PiS’. In the run up to the local elections, PO built a new electoral coalition: Citizens’ Coalition (KO). This included the other main liberal party Nowoczesna (Modern) as well as a section of those from the left that support the prominent politician, Barbara Nowacka and her association: Inicjatywa Polska (Poland Initiative)
The stark division between the government and opposition helped to mobilise voters in these elections. Poland historically has very low electoral turnouts, however they were significantly higher this year than in previous local elections: 55% in the first round and 49% in the second round.
Despite the claims of victory by made by representatives of KO, PiS still emerged as the largest political party from these elections.
The table below displays the results for the main political parties and left-wing parties in the 2018 local elections, compared to the previous local elections in 2014 and parliamentary elections in 2015. As we can see, PiS increased their vote significantly in these elections compared to 2014, with their overall vote rising by nearly 8 percent, giving them an additional 80 councillors. In contrast KO did not build upon the vote of PO in 2014, with their overall vote remaining stable, although they managed to gain an additional 15 councillors. The vote for the Polish Peasants’ Party (PSL) declined by nearly a half and their number of councillors fell by 87.
PiS were the only party to increase their vote nationally from 2014, scoring their best ever local election results. They managed to win the largest number of seats in 9 out of the 16 provincial assemblies and win overall majorities in 7 of them (up from just 1 in 2014). PiS have gained control of the majority of local councils and whilst previously PiS had held power in only one province, it now rules in around 1/3 of the provinces.
Local Election Results 2018 and 2014 and Parliamentary Election Results 2015
Number of Seats Won 2018
Number of Seats Won 2014
Parliamentary Election Percentage 2015
Despite this evident victory, many commentators have claimed that this was a relatively poor result for PiS. This is partly due to the fact that their vote was lower than in the 2015 parliamentary elections and below its general standing in the opinion polls. However, it is not possible to directly compare the results of local elections to parliamentary elections. For example, in local elections many people vote on local issues and for local candidates; there are many non-party candidates standing; and the PSL always traditionally gains a much higher result in local elections than in parliamentary elections.
Yet, despite the relatively poor showing for KO at a national level, the party managed to score some significant victories in many large cities. KO won 46 percent of the vote in cities with a population of over 500,000 people, whilst it only managed to gain 23.9 percent in towns with less than 50,000 residents and 13.5 percent in the countryside. Candidates of KO (or those supported by KO) won the Mayoral elections in many of the country’s large cities such as Warsaw, Wrocław, Kraków, Poznań and Łódż. In Warsaw, for example, the KO candidate won 56.67 percent of the vote compared to the PiS candidate that received just 28.53 percent.
It would not be correct however to state that PiS have only fared badly in the large cities. PiS only won 4 out of 107 Mayoral elections in all cities in the country, down from the 11 it won in 2014. PiS therefore suffered defeats not only in the large cities but also in the small and medium ones. This even includes defeats in city Mayoral elections in those regions where they have won a majority in the regional assemblies. The largest city in which PiS was able to win a Mayoral election was Zamość, which has a population of just 65 thousand people.
These results challenge the simplistic idea that PiS tends to win elections in the ‘conservative’ east and PO in the more ‘liberal’ west. Rather these elections have shown that there is a deep divide between the urban and rural electorates. Therefore, whilst PiS could increase their support nationally, they have been unable to reach out to urban voters. This presents significant challenge to the political hegemony of PiS, as its political base is now almost entirely concentrated in the villages and countryside.
However, these defeats in the Mayoral elections for PiS did not always translate into victories for KO. Independent candidates won 65 Mayoral elections against 25 for KO (with the SLD even winning 6). There is therefore a large section of the electorate in small and medium cities who are dissatisfied with the PiS government but will not necessarily support KO/PO.
These elections also highlighted how stark social divisions run through Polish politics currently. For example, 33.4 percent of those with a higher education voted for PO, compared to 23.1 percent that voted for PiS. In contrast 44.9 percent with a secondary education supported PiS, against just 13.5 percent that backed KO. This division can further be understood when we look at how people from different occupation groups voted in these elections (see table below). Here we can observe that PiS won significantly more votes amongst farmers, blue-collar workers and pensioners; compared to PO which won much more support amongst private business owners and directors, managers and specialists.
Votes for PiS and KO From Occupation Groups
Private Business Owners
Directors, Managers, Specialists
The local elections have shown that PiS and PO continue to dominate Polish politics, there is an evident limit to their support. Votes for PiS in the cities, amongst professional workers and the better educated remains low. Whilst it can numerically win the parliamentary elections by gaining the support of those from the villages and small towns, it is difficult for it to govern with such low support in the cities. The strategy of PiS was to focus its campaign on defeating PSL in the villages and small towns, running an aggressive campaign against the PSL. In effect it gave up ground to KO in the large cities and did not try to appeal to its more liberal electorate.
Towards the end of the election campaign they ran strong anti-refugee election broadcasts that claimed that KO run local governments would endanger their populations by allowing in refugees. Such an obviously reactionary campaign failed to build the support of PiS and it will be difficult for it to expand its vote in next year’s parliamentary elections due to the unpopularity of the government amongst large sections of the population. Meanwhile, the local elections also confirmed that PO is unable to challenge PiS outside of the large cities and the more privileged sections of the electorate. Despite forming a new coalition with other liberal-left forces, the overall vote for these parties shrank compared to 2015 and their support is now almost exclusively concentrated in the major cities and wealthy/educated voters.
The local elections were a failure for the left. The left was fragmented into different national and local initiative and part of it allying with KO. The two main left-wing electoral committees were: Coalition Committee Democratic Left Alliance-Left Together (SLD-Lewica Razem) and the Committee of Party Razem. The plebiscite nature of the elections to local councils and authorities in the major cities contributed to the overall defeat of the left. People were faced with the choice of voting either for the social and national-conservative PiS or the liberal and pro-democratic opposition KO. The lack of a clear and viable alternative to these right-wing coalitions meant that the left remained generally isolated. The national vote for SLD-Lewica Razem declined by more than two percentage points compared to 2014. They won seats in only six provinces, losing 17 council seats from 2014. Meanwhile, the Greens and Party Razem (competing in their first local elections), failed to win any council seats nationally, with both parties winning just 2.5 percent of the vote between them.
 In these elections the party Modern stood independently winning 7.60 percent of the vote.
 It should be noted that SLD-Lewica Razem has nothing to do with Party Razem, and was a coalition of the SLD with some smaller left-wing forces.