October 22, 2018 / 7:56 AM / 23 days ago

Poland's euroskeptic government falling further behind with urban voters

WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland’s ruling euroskeptics could see their firm grip on power loosened over the next couple of years as liberal, city-dwellers angry at the government’s democratic record are voting against them in growing numbers, regional elections showed.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, react after the exit poll with results of the Polish regional elections are announced in Warsaw, Poland October 21, 2018. Agencja Gazeta/Slawomir Kaminski via REUTERS

Final results of Sunday’s nationwide ballot for city hall chiefs and provincial assemblies will be published on Tuesday at the earliest, the electoral commission said on Monday. But exit polls showed Law and Justice (PiS) made only limited gains and lost a high-profile contest for Warsaw mayor.

While still more popular than the centrist opposition around the country overall, the PiS government saw its support fall in big cities, traditionally bastions of liberalism in Poland.

The outcome lays bare mounting divisions in the country over PiS policies toward the judiciary and media that critics at home and abroad say point to a tilt towards authoritarianism.

PiS says its institutional reforms aim at making Poland a fairer society that is less dependent on the European Union.

“The magnitude of our victory is not what we had expected,” Zbigniew Kuzmiuk, a PiS member of the European Parliament, told public radio. “There was an extraordinary mobilisation on the other side, because of the polarisation (of society).”

The election is part of a larger battle for Europe’s soul as Brexit and Hungary’s Viktor Orban - who like PiS believes the EU’s powers should be reined in - shake up the bloc and right-wing parties make gains across the continent.

An exit poll by Ipsos pollster showed PiS scoring 33 percent of votes for provincial assemblies, against 26.7 percent for a centrist coalition.

In cities of over 500,000 inhabitants, PiS won 23.1 percent, against 47.3 percent for its main opponents. Four years earlier, that gap stood at 25.2 percent against 44.1 percent.

Markets showed little reaction to Sunday’s vote, although economists said PiS may have to loosen the purse strings in the coming months as it heads toward a parliamentary election in 2019 and a presidential vote in 2020.

If repeated in the parliamentary election, the provincial assembly results would mean PiS could struggle to retain its grip on power without entering into a coalition.

WARSAW POWER

Exit polls also showed that PiS lost most of the 10 large cities where voting was surveyed, although several contests face a runoff on Nov. 4.

In the race for Warsaw mayor, centrist candidate Rafal Trzaskowski, 46, unexpectedly won office in the first round, with 54.1 percent of vote, more than the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff.

“European issues were used as a bugbear in this election,” said Jaroslaw Flis, a political scientist from the Jagiellonian University in the southern city of Krakow.

Underscoring tensions over Poland’s relationship with the EU and the country’s contested judiciary reforms, the Supreme Court on Monday urged judges forcibly retired by PiS to return to the work.

Its call follows a decision by the European Court of Justice that Warsaw should suspend an overhaul of the top court and reinstate the forcibly retired judges.

Most Poles back EU membership. But PiS has consistently accused Brussels institutions of hurting its efforts to reform the nation which it says has lost touch with conservative Catholic roots and become too liberal.

Krzysztof Goworek, a 41-year-old financial market analyst, is among the urban voters who find its rhetoric unacceptable.

“I don’t like what’s going on in the country,” he said outside a voting station in Warsaw. “All these games around democratic standards which are in place in Poland.”

Additional reporting by Joanna Plucinska and Pawel Sobczak; Editing by Toby Chopra

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