Poland holds local elections in test for Tusk

By Alan Charlish

WARSAW (Reuters) – Poles vote in local elections on Sunday, selecting thousands of councillors and mayors who will play a key role in allocating billions in European Union funds and giving an early indication of their satisfaction with the government of Donald Tusk.

Tusk’s appointment as prime minister in December marked a turning point for the largest country in the EU’s east, drawing a line under eight years of nationalist rule that set Warsaw at odds with Western allies and putting the nation of 38 million people on a resolutely pro-European course.

The broad coalition which Tusk leads won a majority in October’s parliamentary elections on promises to roll back judicial reforms implemented by the previous government that critics said undermined the independence of the courts, while boosting the rights of women and minorities.

He has painted victory on Sunday for his liberal Civic Coalition (KO), the largest grouping in the ruling alliance, as essential if Poland is to avoid sliding back towards nationalist rule under the Law and Justice party (PiS).

“Our dream – once a beautiful dream, and today an increasingly better reality – may end overnight,” he told a rally in Warsaw on Friday, before an election blackout began.

“If someone believes that freedom, human rights, women’s rights, democracy, free economy, self-government – that all this is permanent, will defend itself … we will lose it all again.”

PiS has repeatedly rejected accusations that it undermined democracy and human rights.

‘YELLOW CARD’

With the three groups that form the ruling coalition running on separate tickets, the vote is also a chance for Tusk to cement KO’s dominance in government.

Elections to the European Parliament are scheduled for June, and Sunday’s results will be closely watched in Brussels.

While Tusk has unblocked billions in EU funds that were frozen over rule-of-law concerns and launched sweeping changes in the courts and state media, he has also faced criticism for not delivering on a host of election promises and questions over the legality of some reforms, particularly regarding the media.

For PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the local elections offer a chance to send a warning shot to a government he accuses of lying about what it could achieve and about the record of the previous administration.

“We have a chance … to show the authorities who are at the helm in Warsaw today a yellow card,” he told supporters on Friday, in a reference to the way soccer referees warn players.

A second round of voting in mayoral races will be held on April 21.

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