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Opinion
Leonid Bershidsky

Why Poland’s Nationalists Got Punished

The ruling party’s confrontation with the EU has hurt its image with voters.

He’s had to look over his shoulder.

He’s had to look over his shoulder.

Photographer: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party is facing its most difficult moment since winning the 2015 general election: The party’s dogfight with the European Union over judicial reforms appears to be making voters queasy, especially in bigger cities, and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, the nationalists’ great political hope, lacks the electoral and negotiating golden touch PiS needs despite his successful economic policies.

On Sunday, PiS won in regional elections, but by a narrower margin than polls predicted. Anything less than a 10 percentage point margin over the liberal opposition, the Civic Coalition, would have been a disappointing result, and PiS was held to an advantage of about 7 percentage points, winning less than a third of the votes and falling short of its 2015 general election result nationwide. The surprise first-round defeat of Patryk Jaki in Warsaw’s mayoral election at the hands of liberal candidate Rafal Trzaskowski, who’s already being described as a potential liberal front-runner in future elections, left an especially bitter taste. Even though PiS has improved its representation in local councils, which distribute much of the all-important EU subsidies, it doesn’t have the coalition-building potential of its only slightly weaker rivals. And it needs bigger gains if it is to reproduce the success of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party and reshape Polish politics in its own image.