On a chilly Friday evening in Poland’s capital, the mayoral candidate Patryk Jaki took the stage in Praga Park to make a final pitch to voters. The location had symbolic resonance: Warsaw’s Praga district is home to many low-income residents who feel stigmatized and left behind by their increasingly prosperous and cosmopolitan city. This, in turn, helps makes it friendly territory for Jaki’s Law and Justice (PiS), the right-wing Euroskeptic populist party currently in control of Poland. “People from the town hall keep humiliating and spitting on us,” Jaki said, as his supporters chanted to drown out a small group of protesters. “They don’t want us to take over the town hall, because they’re afraid of what we’ll find there.”
Earlier that day, Jaki’s opponent and the race’s frontrunner, Rafal Trzaskowski of the center-right Civic Platform, had been closing his campaign on a much different note. Though he focuses his messaging on Warsaw-specific issues, Trzaskowski said in an interview, people who stop him on the street want to talk about democracy, about the European Union, and about the rule of law in Poland. “PiS has done so much to undermine our democracy that the streets of Warsaw were witnessing so much protest,” he said.
While it may seem odd, this single mayoral race could say a lot about the fate of liberal democracy in Poland. PiS, which took over the Polish government in 2015, has politicized democratic institutions like the state media and overhauled the judiciary, rapidly reshaping the country in the process. As PiS continues to clash with the EU over controversial judicial reforms, the campaign in Warsaw has become both a high-profile battleground and a metaphor for two contrasting visions of Poland’s future.