Cities push back

As politicians gear up for another crucial election year, all eyes are on urban voters. 

Since the Law and Justice (PiS) party came to power in 2015, Poland has moved in a rightward direction. The party has presented itself as a defender of traditional values and a Europe of nation states while declining to take in refugees from the Middle East as part of the EU’s relocation scheme. In the meantime, it has tightened its grip on institutions from the judiciary to the public media. Yet below this monolithic surface, cities have been pushing back, becoming what Warsaw’s new mayor Rafał Trzaskowski has described as “islands of freedom”. With elections around the corner, these cities will become important focal points for the centrist opposition in the months ahead.

Unlike countries such as Hungary, Poland has a large number of important cities spread across its territory, from Szczecin, Poznań, Wrocław and the Katowice agglomeration in the west, to Białystok and Lublin in the east. With their own history, these cities have increasingly cultivated their own sense of identity that is at once Polish and distinct – for example, Gdańsk as a port city open to the world or Wrocław as “the meeting place”.

Economically dynamic and relatively affluent, these cities draw people to study and work. Unsurprisingly, the biggest cities have the highest percentage of high earners, whereas rural areas have the lowest. When it comes to poverty, these proportions are reversed. Money aside, there are differences in lifestyle and worldview, which affect how people vote. In addition to the often-cited split between eastern and western Poland (the former tends to vote PiS, the latter PO), the urban-rural and city-small town dimension matters too.  

This was highlighted by Poland’s municipal elections last autumn, which showed the limits of PiS’s appeal. This pushback was clearly visible in Warsaw, where Rafał Trzaskowski of the centrist Civic Platform (PO) party defeated PiS’s candidate Patryk Jaki, a 33-year-old deputy minister of justice, in the first round with over 56% of the vote, compared to Jaki’s 28%. Warsaw had already had a PO mayor since 2006. Still, the swiftness of Trzaskowski’s victory was surprising: most observers had expected that he would need a second round to beat Jaki. His win reflects the strong level of mobilisation among liberal urban voters; in Warsaw, the voter turnout was almost 67%, up from 47% in the previous local elections in 2014, indicating that 250,000 more people voted this time.

More generally, PiS failed to win over urban Poles. In almost all the 107 cities in Poland where the mayor is known as the “president”, the mayoral election was won by the independent or opposition candidate, in some cases in the first round, like in Warsaw. PiS mayors were elected in just four cities: Chełm, Otwock, Stalowa Wola and Zamość. The largest of these, Stalowa Wola, in south-eastern Poland, has around 73,000 inhabitants; hardly a metropolis.

Liberal mayors have become counterweights to the PiS government.

In Poland’s polarised political landscape, liberal mayors have become counterweights to the PiS government. Though their jurisdiction is limited, they have the power to influence the political debate by speaking up about issues shunned by the government. A key example is Gdańsk’s long-serving mayor Paweł Adamowicz, who died in January after being stabbed at a charity event. (The attacker’s exact motives are unclear). Prior to his death, Adamowicz, who was re-elected mayor of Gdańsk in autumn 2018 as an independent, was known for standing up to PiS’s anti-immigrant stance. In 2017, he was one of a dozen mayors to sign a declaration on the “friendly admission of migrants”, for which he was criticized in far-right circles.

Another area where mayors have pushed back is on women’s and gay rights, amid PiS’s emphasis on the traditional family. In Poznań, Jacek Jaśkowiak, who was re-elected for a second term last year, opened a 24-hour gynaecological point where women can get a free check-up and seek advice on reproductive health and contraception. Since it opened in October 2018, it has received over a thousand visits. Meanwhile, Trzaskowski is increasing subsidies for IVF treatment in Warsaw (PiS suspended them nationally after coming to power). In February, he signed an “LGBT+ declaration” that seeks to foster tolerance and protect sexual minorities against violence and discrimination.  

More broadly, Polish cities have become places to try out new policies. One such example is the “network of progressive cities” formed by a dozen cities and towns. These include smaller towns like Wadowice and Sejny, a far cry from Warsaw and Wrocław. Yet in recent years, they have cooperated on issues from increasing participation to combating air pollution, reflecting a desire to look beyond national-level solutions and implement solutions at the municipal level.

With Poland in a crucial election year, parties’ ability to mobilise voters in cities will have implications for the country’s political trajectory in the years ahead. This mobilisation will be particularly important in the European Parliament elections in May, which are widely seen as a forerunner of Poland’s parliamentary elections this autumn. In the previous European elections in 2014, turnout was highest in Polish cities with over 500,000 inhabitants (33.6%) and lowest in villages 18.6%, which tends to benefit the opposition.

A new force to watch is the new left-wing Wiosna (Spring) party recently launched by Robert Biedroń, himself a former mayor, which will make its political debut in the European elections. As the mayor of Słupsk from 2014 to 2018, Biedroń became known for his progressive policies, with an emphasis on transparency, participation and environmental awareness. Since its launch in February, early polls have his party in third place, behind PiS and the PO-led European Coalition.

As Poles head to the polls this year, PO and its allies will seek to capitalise on its advantage over PiS in the cities, drawing on the popularity of mayors like Trzaskowski in Warsaw and the legacy left by Adamowicz in Gdańsk. Yet over-focusing on Poland’s cities, while ignoring the needs of voters in small towns and villages, could ultimately play into PiS’s hands. It remains to be seen whether Biedroń’s new party is better at bridging this divide.

Annabelle Chapman is a Warsaw-based journalist. Her articles have been featured in The Economist, Foreign Policy, Newsweek and Foreign Affairs, among others.

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