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First fiddle. On the role of the presidents of Polish cities

17 of July '23

Article fromA&B 06|2023 issue

The office of mayor is one of the best political jobs in Poland. It doesn't require sharing power, constantly working with a party base. In many cities, it doesn't even require reckoning with the media. Because those that would look at the hands of the authorities simply do not exist. However, in recent years - due to COVID, the difficult financial situation, rising energy costs - things have become a bit more complicated. Presidents acting as one-man demiurds have begun to lose their charm. Perhaps the time is beginning for those who can play as a team, go beyond the walls of City Hall, transcend the framework of political divisions.

The final months of the longest term of local government began in early May. The five and a half years were the result of postponed elections and an extended term in office. Extended in exchange for limiting the number of possible re-elections to one - but counting from 2018. So in the spring of 2024, anyone who wants to will run for office once again. Even those who have spent the last quarter century in office. Because also, unlike in all other functions, city and municipal authorities in Poland are extremely long-lived. Only some provincial marshals can compare with presidents. Such as Adam Struzik, who has ruled the Mazovian local government for twenty-two years. But he too has to get along with the members of the five-member provincial board. And the mayor does not have to - if he takes care of what relations he has with the city council, he is independent in his exercise of office.

It all started with a reform introduced in 2002, still under the SLD government. The model of collegial management elected by the city or municipal council, which had been in place since 1990, was then replaced by a president, mayor or alderman elected by popular vote. Seemingly one change, but in fact two: for not only did this strengthen the executive power in the municipality at the expense of the decision-making power, but it also took away its collegial character. Vice-presidents have henceforth become merely the highest level of subordinates of the president or mayor, rather than partners in the management of the municipality. Appointed and dismissed by the chief executive, dependent entirely on him - they are high-ranking officials rather than the political partners they were during the first three terms of local government.

 Rafał Matyja

Rafał Matyja - Habilitated doctor, professor at the Cracow University of Economics, historian and political scientist. Dean of the Faculty of Political Studies and head of the Department of Political Studies at the School of Business - National Louis University in Nowy Sącz. Publicist, author of books, including "Urban Ground. 250 years of the Polish game with modernity" (Karakter, 2021).

photo: private archives

Importantly, this systemic reform coincided with Poland's accession to the EU and a major operation to absorb the funds flowing into the country, shared not only in Warsaw, but also at the regional level and feeding investments in cities, counties and municipalities. The main test of political skills was no longer caring about the majority on the council and the board, but acquiring funds and managerial skills in managing them. One supported the other. New investments were a great legitimizing resource. And at the same time, they worked well under the centralized management of the office.

Such a model therefore strengthened the position of the president, mayor and alderman to a greater degree than the method of election alone would indicate. And coupled with the general satisfaction of Poles with local government - it resulted in the permanence in office of long-serving, hard-to-remove heads of the municipal executive. Even the most recent elections resulted in the re-election of 73 percent of incumbent mayors, slightly less than in the record-breaking fall 2010 elections. And at the same time, significantly more than in 2014, when only just over 60 percent of incumbent mayors succeeded in the art. However, when we add to this the fact that in ten cases there was a continuation of the same team's rule, the percentage of unchanged elections in the city rises to as high as 82.

This context of governance has an impact on how cities are governed. We often attribute certain characteristics of governance to the characters of the people in power. But the numbers cited above show that the very mechanism of local government politics reinforces certain traits. It encourages autocratic tendencies, the formation of mansions, personnel arrangements that are difficult to overturn. Of course, within the same political framework, we can observe different styles of governance. Among the presidents there is no shortage of people who are open-minded, fond of cooperation, looking for partners rather than clients. But it would be naive to think that voters reward just such a style of governance. Even if they don't enthusiastically embrace the paternalism inherent in politicians of the older generation, they often regard such a style as something natural. And they rarely allow that it is possible to do things quite differently.

The state of lowered expectations and the fear that the successor may prove inferior makes local government politics less competitive. Sometimes we may even ask ourselves, can a bad - from the point of view of the city's obvious interests - president lose? After all, in recent elections, only nineteen out of one hundred and seven saw a political change. In four at the expense of Law and Justice, which lost power in Biała Podlaska, Nowy Sącz, Ostroleka and Siedlce. However, the list of defeats was actually longer, as in Lomza and Zgierz, for example, the incumbent mayors said goodbye to the Law and Justice Party and defeated the party's candidates.

© Mohamed Hassan | source: Pixabay

This blockage to change is compounded by the fact that the entire political elite of the Third Republic is distinctively paternalistic. It is no different at the level of large and medium-sized cities. Shortly after the elections, the average age of presidents slightly exceeded fifty, and now stands at around fifty-four, which is slightly less than simple arithmetic would have one simply add five years to the average age. This was due to several changes during the term - including the resignation of the oldest incumbent president, eighty-one-year-old Tadeusz Ferenc. Currently, only four incumbent mayors are over seventy, including the oldest of them, seventy-six-year-old Krakow Mayor Jacek Majchrowski. All four have held their offices for more than twenty years. But after the resignation of Senator Zygmunt Frankiewicz, who had ruled Gliwice since 1993, eight mayors remained in their seats, whose power dates back to before the 2002 elections. For the most part, they manage small cities such as Kutno, Sopot and Zory. But they also include the presidents of Gdynia and Tychy. Another president with six terms to his credit - Robert Raczynski - has ruled Lubin continuously since 2002, but he began his first term in 1990.

The paternalistic rules are reinforced by the fact that almost all presidential cities are ruled by men. This is the case in ninety-six of the one hundred and seven centers. Only in eleven are women at the head of the executive branch. In two cases, they are female metropolitan presidents - Hanna Zdanowska and Aleksandra Dulkiewicz. In the smaller ones, Małgorzata Mańka-Szulik from Zabrze or Beata Moskal-Słaniewska from Świdnica, among others, have been elected to the chair of the executive. One does not have to be a declared feminist to assess such an arrangement critically. Just like other processes that result in cities almost never being governed by people under 40. Six mayors in their thirties somehow fit into a world where cities are headed by only eleven women. Needless to say, the combination of both qualities - that is, a woman before forty in the president's chair - does not occur even once.

This is not for "objective" reasons, but because we do not have in our heads a model in which the president is the "first fiddle" in a large - adapted in size to the city - orchestra. Rather, we fit the "orchestra man." With a wealth of knowledge, experience, the ability to dominate his surroundings, crediting himself with all possible successes. Able to get rid of competitors even at the expense of weakening the strength of the entire team, treating loyalty as a basic human virtue. Especially when it comes to conflict with the beliefs of a subordinate or even the public interest.

Someone will say that this is what politics looks like. But this is one possible version of it. Built under the dictates of one model of government. Somehow strangely ungovernable. Putting the community to sleep, which is needed only every few years to renew the mandate. Blocking the activity of people whose behavior the president could treat as competitive and take away their office. The current system of the municipality makes only the treasurer an office for which the president must get approval from the council. All others are hired based on his personal decision.

Therefore, the model in which the president plays first fiddle, formed in the initial three terms of Polish local government, has been replaced by one in which he is also the conductor and director of the orchestra. In extreme cases - he additionally plays only solo parts accompanied by other musicians. However, what somehow suited prosperous times may turn out to be a fatal recipe for management in difficult times.

The next term may prove decisive in terms of how local governments are funded. It will be a choice between dependent security and the risk of permanent financial problems. The current government's offer may give security primarily to small and medium-sized municipalities, and it will be difficult for successors to abandon it without a word. For some mayors, stable revenues built somewhat along the lines of an education subsidy calculated on the basis of population may be a solution to several problems at once. First with the depopulation of their localities, second with an uncooperative council on increases in various local fees, and third with the instability of funding rules. The idea of a local government funded entirely from the central budget is not entirely at odds with the expectations of citizens, who do not see local government as a tool in their own hands, but as part of a divided executive.


In the spring of 2024, in the next elections we will probably not elect presidents for easy times, builders of libraries, philharmonics and stadiums, creators of major infrastructure investments, authors of spectacular revitalization, but specialists in trouble. Negotiators of unpopular transportation solutions, restrictions on the climate package, austerity resulting from tough municipal financing rules. And they'd better be people who don't look down on political and social partners with the superiority of the authors of everything good that has happened in the city in the past quarter century.

Today the phase of "casting," the search for possible strong rivals for those who govern cities, begins. It is being conducted by political parties, but also by various urban alignments, networks, coteries. Two significant barriers are evident: first, this casting is being carried out under the assumption that presidential and mayoral paternalism will be maintained or strengthened, amid growing complaints about those councils that are unwilling to support magistrate ideas to combat the financial crisis without resistance. The second barrier is the continuing pattern of fighting between the two big camps: PiS and anti-PiS, which causes candidates to be judged mainly by their badge. Even those who formally run as independents. In 2018, the latter element saved several long-serving presidents losing popularity.

Optimal would be the emergence of a viable choice, unconditioned by the logic of nationwide party competition. Where presidents with the backing of Civic Platform decide to fight for re-election, it will be very difficult to do so. So will where very strong PiS candidates will emerge. But everywhere else - and we're talking about quite large cities, such as Krakow, for example - things could be different. The only problem is who will stand in the final competition.

As in the States, where intra-party primaries are sometimes much more interesting than the recent clash between Republican and Democratic candidates, it will be very important here, too, who will be in the final field of candidates and who will make it to the second round. So this casting - although not as democratic and transparent as in the US - will determine the chances for better local government. And although it sounds rather cliché - for more self-governing municipalities.

Rafał Matyja

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