Lessons from battle of Warsaw

When the mayor of Warsaw Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz was confronted with the initiative to recall her, the local issue became a national one . The blood pressure of politicians rose and the ruling Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO) supported the mayor. The ordinary people preferred to mind their own business, as usual, but the referendum has so far been one of the main political events in Poland this year. Here are some lessons we learned – for politicians, civil society, lawmakers and voters anywhere.

Foto: Creative Commons/ PlatformaRP


The October referendum started as a local initiative, but became a fierce political battle between the ruling party, the centre-right Civic Platform and their main opponent, the right-wing Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS) party.  Gronkiewicz-Waltz had angered local activists with her lack of communication skills. A visible example of such problems was the launch of a new waste-management bill – a six-month delay caused quite a stir among residents of the city. There was no easy access to information, no clear explanations. But as Gronkiewicz-Waltz is also the vice-president of PO, she became an easy target for PiS in their campaign to return to power and it must be said that this party’s campaign against the mayor came very close to victory.

What lessons can we draw from this episode? It does not only concern Poland, but the whole Visegrad region. The Warsaw referendum reminded us that many problems which trouble Central Europe are very similar: arrogance of the parties in power, strong political divides casting a shadow on all aspect of public life, non-functional law and low citizen engagement

Lesson 1: It does not pay off to be arrogant, even though you are efficient

Gronkiewicz-Waltz is an efficient and pragmatic manager. She is a former president of the Polish central bank and a director in the London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Under her rule, from 2006, Warsaw became Poland’s third metropolis in terms of investment and use of European funds per capita. In recent years, the capital has changed significantly: new roads, a new bridge, a water treatment plant were added. Gronkiewicz-Waltz was re-elected as a mayor of Warsaw in 2009 with a clear majority of 54 per cent in the first round of voting.

However, her second term proved more difficult. For example the way in which city hall dealt with price increases for urban transport showed it does not understand how to communicate with the public. Officials had good reasons for the increases, such as the fact there had been no price changes for the last six years, they had invested in new fleet, and they faced rising costs. But they did not even attempt to explain this to residents.

The mayor was criticized for appointing incompetent officials and sticking by them despite protests. She antagonised local elites in the capital, including artists and NGO activists. She became known for avoiding the media, even those who favoured her.

This is why, in spite of the real achievements of the mayor, the opposition was able to collect a sufficient number of signatures for a recall vote. At the beginning, it was the initiative of an ambitious mayor of one Warsaw district. Piotr Guział, who was supported by some NGOs and local opposition parties’ structures. But the headquarters of PiS and the left-wing Palikot Movement (Ruch Palikota) soon smelled blood and joined in. The date of a vote was set for 13 October.

Lesson 2: Citizens’ pressure can still achieve a lot

The referendum activated the mayor and her office. Suddenly, a significant number of official actions, which seemed to be impossible some months earlier, started happening very quickly. Gronkiewicz-Waltz replaced the most-criticized city hall staff with people respected in the local community. She started meeting with residents and explaining her policies in the media.

The strategy “I know better and do not have to explain” was not the domain of the Warsaw mayor alone. The Civic Platform government has been in power for six years in Poland. This is an achievement in itself in our region of Europe, so more and more ministers seem to consider themselves infallible. “There’s no one I can lose to,” said Prime Minister Donald Tusk in an interview. One of his ministers repeatedly proclaims that it is not his job to reveal his policies to the media, it is their job to find out.

But recently, in some cases, they also had to retreat under public pressure. The most significant was on the issue of ACTA, at the beginning of 2012. The Polish government supported the new multinational treaty, which, according to some activists, would limit online freedom under the umbrella of intellectual property rights enforcement. That has angered many and brought them to the streets (there were protests around Europe, but the strongest were in Poland). The government withdrew its support, and the Polish minister of administration and digitisation started consulting civil society on related issues.

Another example is the case of the so-called “mothers of first quarter” issue. On 1 April 2013, a law reforming maternity leaves came into force, extending them up to one year. This provoked protests of mothers who gave birth in the first three months of 2013 and who were not to be included in the reform, so that their maternity leaves would be shorter. But they were very determined, talked to politicians from all parties, gained the support of the president and finally they proved to be successful – Tusk decided to include them in the reform, and now all mothers who gave birth in 2013 have the same rights. It clearly showed that determined citizens can and sometimes should pressure politicians.

Lesson 3: National politics should not mess up with local issues

Back in Warsaw, the opposition parties became more and more involved in the recall campaign. This was not the first case that national politics overshadowed local issues in Warsaw. The post of the mayor of the capital has often been a springboard into national politics. For example, the late Lech Kaczyński, founder of PiS, became a president campaigning from the mayor’s chair.

The Warsaw referendum was especially important for PiS. Taking over the capital, which is PO ’s lair, was supposed to be a final proof that Tusk’s era in Poland had finished and his only successor would be only PiS and Jarosław Kaczyński. The party focused strongly on the Warsaw battle. In the campaign it even used symbols which reminded voters of the Warsaw Uprising against Nazis in 1944.

Probably that was a decisive moment. Many residents of Warsaw saw that a referendum was no longer a local issue, but that it had become a political power struggle, and this time many decided not to encourage that. According to a poll conducted by one of the political parties, Palikot Movement (Ruch Palikota), the number of people who intended to take part in voting suddenly decreased by 20 percentage points.

Lesson 4: Be careful, how you create the law

The Warsaw referendum was not the first one this year in Poland in which local citizens were to decide if they wanted to recall their mayors or city councils. Of course, in many cases, the recalls were sparked by mistakes made by local authorities. But sometimes the reasons for recalls were strictly political.

Jarosław Kaczyński’s party is currently leading in public opinion polls, but parliamentary elections are to be held in 2015. European and local elections are usually early battlegrounds preceding the main event. But this year there were none. That is why PiS used the tactic of recalling local PO mayors. The Warsaw referendum was to be the crown jewel of this campaign.

The episode shows how the law, which was supposed to be a solution for such special cases as when a mayor breaks the law, can be abused for political reasons. A change in legislation will probably follow. A draft law presented by Polish President Bronisław Komorowski is being discussed in the parliament.

Lesson 5 (still to be learned): How can you mobilise voters, when you demobilised them first

So, Gronkiewicz-Waltz survived the recall. Did she convince most of the voters to support her? No. 95 percent of valid votes were against her, but referendum was not valid, because the turnout was not sufficient. In Poland, you need 30 per cent of the registered voters to turn up at the ballot box to recall a mayor; in the Warsaw recall, less than 27 per cent cast ballots.

Civic Platform decided to demobilise its voters to defend Gronkiewicz-Waltz. The president, prime minister and other significant politicians of the party told citizens that the referendum was a political affair, so they should not turn out. In the short term, the strategy worked – the mayor is still there. But will it have positive effects in the long term? I doubt it.

Of course, a conscious abstention is a political decision, as any other. But Poland is known for having the lowest turnout in elections in the whole region anyway. It rarely exceeds 50 percent. Recent polls show that in coming elections it will be lower than usual, as voters become tired of the current government and the whole political scene. This would mean bad news for entire democratic system in Poland.

And low turnout is a specific problem for Civic Platform itself, because its voters are less mobilised than supporters of the opposition, according to polls. The tactic of encouraging non-participation carries a double risk. In Warsaw, it paid off. But during the next two years, as a series of elections approach, it can bring catastrophic results for the ruling party.

Łukasz Lipiński

Łukasz Lipiński

is the vice-director of Polityka Insight, a centre for political analysis based in Warsaw. From 1998-2012 he was an editor on the national, foreign and economics desks of the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza.