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Local votes pit Polish nationalists against liberals in key test

© AFP | A police demo passes a poster for a Warsaw mayoral candidate. Poles vote for mayors and regional councils in local elections on Sunday

WARSAW (AFP) - 

Poles vote for mayors and regional councils in local elections on Sunday pitting centrist opposition candidates against the governing nationalists whose controversial judicial reforms have put Poland on a collision course with the European Union.

As campaigning was winding down on Friday, the EU's top court ordered the Law and Justice (PiS) government in Warsaw to "immediately suspend" its decision to lower the retirement age of its Supreme Court judges, which it said threatens judicial independence.

Sunday's ballot is the first since a 2015 parliamentary election that handed the PiS an unprecedented majority and is seen as a key test for the nationalists as they gear up for EU and legislative elections next year.

"The elections are a test for the major parties in large cities and regional councils," Stanislaw Mocek, a political scientist with Poland's Academy of Sciences, told AFP.

While local issues like housing, public transport and fighting pollution cropped up in the campaign, mayoral candidates in Warsaw and other large cities focused their campaigns on national and international issues along with a fair dose of mud slinging.

Steered by its powerful leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the PiS ran a controversial campaign ad days ahead of the vote insisting that if opposition liberal Civic Platform (PO) candidates win, they would allow an influx of migrants and refugees.

- 'Blow up' -

The PO shot back accusing the nationalist PiS of peddling xenophobia and scare tactics similar to a strategy Kaczynski used to win national elections in 2015 at the height of Europe's migrant crisis.

Trailing PO liberal candidate Rafal Trzaskowski in the race for mayor of the capital Warsaw, the PiS's Patryk Jaki minced no words in defending the video.

"I've visited the West, and I don't want something to blow up here as has been the case in many other cities," said the 33-year-old who currently serves as Poland's deputy justice minister.

"If you elect Trzaskowski, you have no guarantee that this won't happen," Jaki added.

Polls published this week show Trzaskowski, a 46-year-old former minister and MEP who is campaigning for a "Warsaw for all", beating Jaki in the November 4 run-off by over ten percent of the vote.

Surveys in other large cities also suggest that the PiS has a slim chance of winning in two rounds of voting that starts this Sunday and ends on November 4.

Riding a wave of popularity driven by robust economic growth and generous social spending, the PiS does stand to make gains in regional councils but is unlikely to dominate them.

- Clash with Brussels -

Senior PiS figures like Kaczynski and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki have crisscrossed the country in recent weeks to bolster local candidates by assuring voters that they will have the ear of Warsaw.

Despite coming out on top in a poll published on Friday by the SuperExpress tabloid daily with results suggesting the PiS would win an average 34 percent of the vote in the regional councils, the nationalist would not be able to govern alone.

To boot, the PiS has few if any natural allies. It currently controls only one regional council out of sixteen.

The survey was conducted on a regional basis by the Pollster agency Wednesday and Thursday on a random sample of 1,086. It also registered 24 percent voter support for a liberal and centrist coalition and 12 percent support for independents.

PiS voters see the party, especially its leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, as a brave defender of national interests. But critics of the PiS's disputed judicial reforms insist they are unconstitutional and pose the greatest threat to democracy in Poland since the country shed communism in 1989.

Friday's decision by the EU's top court to suspend the PiS-authored Supreme Court retirement law was the latest salvo in a bitter battle over sweeping judicial changes introduced by the PiS since 2015.

Refusing to bow to criticism abroad or mass protests at home, the nationalists have defended the reforms as a key element of their drive to tackle corruption and overhaul a judicial system still haunted by the communist era.

Polling stations are open from 0500 GMT to 1900 GMT on Sunday, with a run-off vote due on November 4 in cities and towns where no single mayoral candidate wins an absolute majority.

© 2018 AFP