Referendum Fails to Oust Warsaw Mayor
October 31, 2013
A bid to oust the mayor of Warsaw, a close ally of Prime Minister Donald Tusk, failed Oct. 13 after too few voters turned out in a referendum to make the result valid, sparing the embattled government a major blow.
Aside from local issues, the referendum was a chance for voters unhappy at Poland’s lackluster economy and high unemployment to voice their discontent at Tusk’s ruling Civic Platform (PO) party, which, after six years in power, has slipped behind in the polls.
The referendum was invalid because turnout, at 25.66 percent, fell short of the required minimum of 29.1 percent—calculated on the basis of the number of voters in the last local election, when Gronkiewicz-Waltz, who is a deputy leader of the PO, secured a second term as mayor in the first round of voting.
A total of 343,732 votes were cast in the referendum, while the required minimum was 389,430. Those voting against Gronkiewicz-Waltz dominated overwhelmingly among those who went to the polls on referendum day: 322,017 voters wanted Gronkiewicz-Waltz ousted and only 17,465 wanted her to continue in office. This means that mainly those dissatisfied with her performance as mayor went to the polls.
PO politicians were far from euphoric when commenting on the outcome of the vote. Many, using soccer terminology, suggested that Gronkiewicz-Waltz and the party as a whole—which has had a solid majority in Warsaw City Council for two terms—have been handed a symbolic yellow card by citizens in recent months. They added that Gronkiewicz-Waltz will now have to deliver on the promises that she made profusely in the weeks before the referendum.
Those opposing Gronkiewicz-Waltz generally fell into two groups. Some, like Piotr Guział, president of the southern borough of Ursynów and the main driving force behind the referendum, openly admitted defeat. Guział heads the Warsaw Local Government Community, an organization that handled the collection of signatures needed for the referendum to take place. However, Guział added he was happy that the referendum forced Gronkiewicz-Waltz to change her management style as mayor. Even though it failed to remove Gronkiewicz-Waltz from office, the referendum has benefited Warsaw residents, Guział said.
The Warsaw referendum was not just a local event. Various opposition parties, both rightist and leftist, used the ballot to attack the Civic Platform and Tusk.
Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the conservative Law and Justice (PiS), the largest opposition party, which has been leading in the polls for several months, claimed the referendum was held in “anti-constitutional conditions.” He did not expand on this, but once again took the opportunity to attack Tusk and President Bronisław Komorowski, who was a prominent PO politician before becoming president, for calling on voters to boycott the referendum.
Turnout was widely expected to be the key issue that would decide Gronkiewicz-Waltz’s future. Before the ballot, both Tusk and Komorowski declared in public that they would stay home on referendum day, drawing fire from their political opponents and from some commentators, who accused them of undemocratic behavior.
The Democratic Left Alliance, the largest leftist opposition party, was ambivalent about the referendum. The party’s leader, Leszek Miller, repeatedly stated that he had no intention of taking part in “a spectacle directed by Law and Justice” in order to further strengthen that party. This approach effectively encouraged SLD voters to stay at home on referendum day, even though at the same time the SLD repeatedly criticized the way in which Gronkiewicz-Waltz exercised power.
Meanwhile, Your Movement, a party until recently called the Palikot Movement and led by flamboyant parliamentarian Janusz Palikot, unequivocally opposed Gronkiewicz-Waltz before the referendum. Both Palikot himself and the group’s spokesman Andrzej Rozenek did not spare Gronkiewicz-Waltz criticism, while also lashing out at Tusk and Komorowski for resorting to “undemocratic” methods.
One way or another, Gronkiewicz-Waltz not only kept her job as Warsaw mayor, but still leads in the polls ahead of next year’s mayoral election in Warsaw. According to polling agency TNS OBOP, Gronkiewicz-Waltz is well ahead, with 54 percent support, eclipsing other potential mayoral contenders, including popular left-winger Ryszard Kalisz (18 percent), PiS’s contender Piotr Gliński (9 percent), and Guział (3 percent).
Warsaw in Numbers
Spending (billions of zlotys):
healthcare and social security—1.0
municipal property maintenance—1.0
special tax paid to help poorer regions—0.8 [before the referendum, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz vowed she would work to abolish this mandatory contribution, which is widely criticized by Warsaw residents and local politicians from all parties]
waste management and environmental protection—0.7