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Poland Elections Test Governing Party’s Populist Message

WARSAW — In one of Warsaw’s most run-down neighborhoods, where glittering new towers across the Vistula River shimmer in the distance but many people live in graffiti-clad buildings largely left to crumble since World War II, the Polish rapper Piotr Szot had a message for the crowd.

The city’s elite may deride supporters of the country’s governing party, Law and Justice, and its candidate for mayor of Warsaw, Patryk Jaki, as a low-class hoodlum “from the block.”

Good, he said. That means Mr. Jaki is one of them.

“People from the town hall keep humiliating and spitting on us,” Mr. Jaki, a 33-year-old firebrand, told the crowd recently when he took the stage later in the evening. “They don’t want us to take over the town hall, because they’re afraid of what we’ll find there.”

The emotional appeal to historical grievance and the targeting of voters who feel left behind despite Poland’s booming economy are strategies that worked well for the right-wing and populist Law and Justice party when it swept to power in 2015 on the strength of the rural vote. It is hoping to use a similar strategy to make inroads in the nation’s largest urban centers and powerful provincial councils.

But nearly every major city — from Krakow in the south to Gdansk in the north to Warsaw in between — is currently controlled by opposition parties. The elections on Sunday will be test for Law and Justice: Can that same far-right populism seep into the cities?

Fifteen of Poland’s 16 provinces are controlled by the opposition, often through a coalition with the conservative Peasant Party.

For Law and Justice, there would be no greater victory than winning the office of the powerful Warsaw mayor. There are few candidates who represent the party’s style more than Mr. Jaki, the current deputy justice minister. His chief opponent, Rafal Trzaskowski, 46, of the Civic Coalition, which bands together the largest opposition parties, worries that with 14 candidates on the ballot — most running in opposition to Law and Justice — his support will be diluted in the first round of voting.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of Law and Justice, has said that his goal is to create a Fourth Republic, free of any vestiges of the Communist era, steeped in Christianity and one that serves as a bulwark against the secular values espoused by Western European leaders.

Over three years in power, the government has reshaped the nation’s judicial system in ways that critics say undermines the rule of law. On Friday, Europe’s top court ordered the country’s leaders to suspend a law that cleared the way for a sweeping purge of the Supreme Court.

But the government has also engaged in a brutal battle with the European Union on issues like environmental policy and migration, and has sought to reshape national memory over the recent and distant past. Most recently, Poland became the first member nation to veto the bloc’s signing off on the continent’s fundamental human rights charter, saying that while it explicitly protected gay men and lesbians, there were no similar protections for Christians and Jews.

For all the sweeping changes that the party has set in motion, many of its efforts to change the culture in Poland have been stymied at the local level. That is by design.

When Poland broke free from the yoke of the former Soviet Union in 1989 and began to chart its course as an independent nation, leaders were wary of a government structure that centralized power. Local governments were given broad authority to set policy. Most important, they have a great degree of autonomy to direct the spending of billions from the European Union that have helped transform the nation’s infrastructure over the past decade.

While Law and Justice came to power with an emotional appeal to nationalism and nostalgia, money has proved to be its most effective tool to galvanize voters across the country. The party promised to give every woman who had a second child $ 140 per month, and once in power, it delivered. The booming economy has allowed the party to do it without breaking the bank.

Oxfam recently ranked Poland among the top countries for fighting income inequality and child poverty.

Now, Law and Justice leaders are promising more, telling pensioners that they will receive an extra $ 80 a month and telling parents that every child will be allocated $ 80 at the start of the school year. In an attempt to blend social welfare and religious conservatism, the government is also promising $ 1,100 to women who give birth to disabled children, hoping to discourage abortion.

Jerzy Bartkowski, a sociologist at the University of Warsaw, said that Law and Justice had been the biggest beneficiary of Poland’s economic miracle.

“Regardless of what they had done, people would have been better off right now,” he said. “Unemployment has decreased, and there is a budget surplus, though it’s not due to any special talents of the government.”

The government has pushed its conservative agenda by restricting access to contraceptives, attempting to ban abortion, hanging crosses in Parliament, removing certain textbooks from the school curriculum and cutting funding for some independent news media.

In the past three years, Deputy Prime Minister Piotr Glinski, who is also the minister of culture, has tried to censor two plays staged by theaters managed by local governments. In 2015, he urged the Polish Theater in Wroclaw to cancel its show based on the Nobel Prize-winning Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek’s book “Death and the Maiden.” Mr. Glinski deemed the play “hard-core pornography.” But it had its premiere anyway.

Critics worry that if the party gains ground in localities, it will be able to shape the cultural and ideological landscape even more.

Barbara Nowacka, a left-wing leader of the Civic Coalition, said the government wanted “total control on all levels” with “no freedom of speech and thought.”

“They want to decide what we watch in cinemas, theaters; what our children are taught at school,” Ms. Nowacka said in an interview. “All of this can be subject to political agenda.”

While Law and Justice is the dominant force in more traditional towns and villages with a population of fewer than 50,000 people — and home to 65 percent of voters — Poland’s urban centers remain bastions of more liberal and inclusive politics.

Nowhere is that more evident than in Warsaw, where tens of thousands of women have filled the streets in recent months to oppose efforts to limit reproductive rights, thousands of gay men and lesbians have marched for equality, and hundreds of thousands have protested the changes to the justice system.

Mr. Jaki was the driving force behind a law that sought to make it a crime to implicate the Polish nation in the slaughter of Jews during the Holocaust. The law passed, but had to be amended after an international backlash.

He once compared allowing Muslim migrants into the country to the Nazi invasion of 1939. In the days before the election, the party began running television ads suggesting that the opposition wanted to bring Muslim migrants to Poland. One clip shows a man kicking a woman down the stairs in a Berlin subway station. It turned out the man was Bulgarian, not a Muslim migrant.

Still, Mr. Jaki defended the campaign, saying that he had been to the West and did not want to see things “blown up” in Warsaw. If his opponent is elected, he said, “you can’t be guaranteed that won’t happen.”

Mr. Jaki has the good fortune to be running at time when the current mayor, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, is weighed down by scandal, including corruption in her office and the unlawful restitution of property in Warsaw. She is not running for re-election.

Bozena Kirejczyk, 53, a brand developer who lived in America for 23 years before returning to Poland seven years ago, said Mr. Jaki’s blunt style was needed.

“I witnessed the opposition trampling human dignity, trampling poor people,” she said at the rap rally. “I love my country, but it hurts to see how some people have been humiliated time and time again.”

Mr. Trzaskowski said that simple sloganeering would not be enough to win over voters in Warsaw. “It’s easy to use populist rhetoric and say all migrants are rapists who will rape our women,” he said in an interview in his downtown office. “It takes 10 seconds.”

But Warsaw, he said, is “one of the most tolerant, open and ambitious cities in Europe,” and he said he believed that voters would see past the rhetoric. “The future of the city is at stake,” he said.

Mr. Trzaskowski expressed confidence that he would secure a runoff with Mr. Jaki but said he was not taking anything for granted.

“It will be close,” he said. “There will be blood and tears and it will go to the end. But I think I will win.”

Source: NYT > World

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