“Local issues, not ideological quarrels”: an interview with PiS’s candidate for Warsaw mayor

On 7 April, people around Poland will vote to choose mayors and local councils, in the first elections since last October’s parliamentary poll that saw the national-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party lose power nationally and a new, more liberal government led by Donald Tusk come to office.

Notes from Poland has invited all four main candidates standing to be mayor of Warsaw, Poland’s capital and largest city, to speak with us. In our first interview, we meet with Tobiasz Bocheński, who is standing on behalf of PiS.

Commentators see the 36-year-old’s candidacy as a bid to rejuvenate the party’s image and appeal to centrist, big-city voters. Bocheński, who last year served as the PiS-appointed governor of the province in which Warsaw is located, says he wants to focus on local issues rather than the kind of ideological questions that he believes cost PiS power.

Alicja Ptak: You moved to Warsaw less than a year ago yet your slogan for this election is “Out of love for Warsaw”. What is that you love about Warsaw?

Tobiasz Bocheński: The list is long! Warsaw is an archipelago of diversity. Each district is different, each has its own identity, its own history. A person who both loves nature and wants to lead a big-city life, where they can go out onto a busy street – as you might experience in New York – can find a perfect spot to live in Warsaw.

Moreover, it’s the most dynamically developing city in Poland, so there are the most different kinds of opportunities here, from professional opportunities, to leisure, to cultural offerings. On top of that, Warsaw has a unique history, which is very close to my heart.

What would be the three most important topics you would like to address if chosen as mayor?

Transport, local democracy, and urban planning – including addressing the issue of the housing market.

Prices for both buying and renting in Poland have soared, leaving many struggling to afford housing.

But solutions proposed by the two main parties – to subsidies mortgages – repeat demand-side solutions that have failed in the past, writes @WojciechKosc https://t.co/I0DUlOEn2h

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) March 31, 2023

What are your ideas for public transport in Warsaw?

Among Polish cities, Warsaw has the best transport system but it is also the largest urban centre in Poland, so what we have is simply inadequate for the needs and expectations of a growing agglomeration. It has a long way to go to match the public transport systems of other European capitals such as Vienna or Paris. The construction of a third and fourth metro line should be an absolute priority.

We do not have park-and-ride facilities near the borders of Warsaw; this means that a great many residents of the surrounding areas drive to Warsaw by car, generating huge traffic jams. We need to propose a system of railways, trams and buses that would work as a whole, serving the entire agglomeration of almost four million people. We can afford it. We can also secure national and EU money for it.

Correct me if I am wrong, but it seems to me that the obstacle to the expansion of the metro in Warsaw has been not so much a lack of funds as the type of soil on which the city stands, largely consisting of clay.

This is also a problem, but it is a problem that engineers can solve. The current authorities to date have not done this work. The third metro line was supposed to be already under construction, yet ground has not yet been broken. Regarding the fourth metro line, no preliminary documents have been prepared and no kind of analysis have been carried out.

I believe that this has simply not been prioritized; yet, the utmost emphasis should be placed on this issue.

Warsaw has unveiled plans to more than double the size of its metro system by 2050, with the current two lines expanding to five.

The number of stations would rise from 39 to 103, with over half of Varsovians living within 1 km of one (up from 28% now) https://t.co/Lh9Doi25Uz

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) February 14, 2023

What ideas do you have for road transport?

I side neither with fanatical drivers who consider cyclists a threat, nor cyclists who would like to narrow all streets.

I’m absolutely in favour of extending cycle paths. I cycle myself and it’s a great way to get around but I want the residents to be able to choose it freely and not because the ability to travel around the city centre by car will be removed. Warsaw is no Amsterdam.

You have repeatedly opposed the proposed clean transport zone which would ban petrol cars older than 27 years and diesel cars older that 18 years old from the streets of Warsaw. But only about 1% of all of the cars in Poland are older than 27 years old. Why do you think this is a bad solution?

No such analysis has been carried out in Warsaw. Also, this is one of the two or three topics that come up most often in conversations with residents on the street and it comes up because the idea has not been consulted enough with them. A referendum was not held. The public consultation was wholly inadequate.

My position is that if the European Commission requires us to adopt these zones in cities above a certain population, then we should do so because we cannot risk losing European funds. However, the zone should not immediately cover a third of the city.

At the moment, a lot of people are saying that they have cars that don’t meet the requirements of the zone and they won’t be able to park outside their homes.

Warsaw will ban older cars from its city centre as part of a new „clean transport zone” to be introduced next year https://t.co/uFLPGv6iGV

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) January 26, 2023

So how would you like the zone to look?

It should be a third of what it is right now. We would conduct wide consultations and consider the question of how to expand this zone in the future but the expansion should be slow.

If not a broad clean transport zone, what ideas do you have for improving air quality in Warsaw? Despite improvements in recent years, there are still days, in winter especially, when Warsaw makes the top 10 cities with the worst air quality in the world.

Old [coal-fired] heaters, known colloquially in Polish as kopciuchy, are responsible for air pollution in Warsaw. There are still a lot of them, despite European and government funding [to replace them]. The city should continue this support.

You emphasise the need for broad public consultation. What are your ideas for revitalising local democracy, which you identified as one of your priorities at the beginning of this interview?

We need to decentralise Warsaw. Currently, the mayor has very broad powers. They should carry out the big tasks that bind the city together but the micro tasks should be carried out by the district mayors.

We have also proposed the creation of an app to facilitate this local democracy. A resident, who would be assigned to a district, would be able to answer specific questions asked by the [district] mayor. We could ask citizens, for example, what trees they would like to see planted in their neighbourhood.

Critics of the app idea said it was similar to the already existing city app Warszawa 19115, which facilitates contact with municipal services.

It is not similar at all. What we are proposing is to enable residents to vote on specific issues and to have an influence on decision-making, to co-create the city.

We also want our app to increase the transparency of public life, for example, by showing the attendance and voting records of city councillors.

Under the PiS government, which ruled the country from 2015 to 2023, Poland saw an unprecedented wave of immigration. Warsaw was the biggest destination for immigrants and their presence is very visible in the city. In your opinion, has immigration been good for Warsaw and Poland?

All those who obtained work permits in Poland filled gaps in the labour market where there were no Poles to work, either because they did not want to do these jobs or because they left to go to Western countries, i.e. this is mainly labour immigration.

You can also hear English and other languages on the streets of Warsaw very often, this is the standard for a European capital.

This does not bother me in any way, but I am opposed to the quota system for admitting immigrants that the European Union is proposing. It is one thing to receive immigrants in accordance with a country’s procedures and another to enter a country illegally and then send them all over Europe. I do not like this idea.

The number of foreigners in Poland’s social insurance system rose 6% in 2023 to reach 1.13 million. Immigrants now make up almost 7% of all those in the system

The largest increases were recorded by Belarusians, Ukrainians, Indians, Colombians and Nepalis https://t.co/eA1QVo0ydH

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) January 27, 2024

At the same time, Warsaw is facing a worsening housing affordability crisis. According to a Politico ranking, Warsaw is the fourth-least affordable capital in Europe based on how long it takes to buy an apartment with an average salary. What would be your solution to this problem?

Our Polish experience shows that house building by state institutions, national or local government, does not work. But this does not mean that the mayor of Warsaw can dodge the issue.

Firstly, district mayors are responsible for adopting land-use or zoning plans – these organise our reality. They determine where the housing will be built, where there are services, industry, recreation and sport.

There are no such decisions issued for almost 50% of Warsaw’s area. This makes it difficult for investors, dragging out the whole process for years, so it needs to be simplified.

CEE capitals lead unaffordability ranking for home buyers. In Warsaw, you’d need to save an entire average salary for almost 20 years to buy a 75m2 flat. Rent isn’t cheap either.

Bad news for us, 30-somethings, looking to enter the property ladder.

Source: @POLITICOEurope pic.twitter.com/3BFPlSDq1s

— Alicja Ptak (@AlicjaPtak4) December 11, 2023

Secondly, the mayor is a huge landlord of Warsaw’s municipal property. And while many of the more vulnerable residents have been waiting for years to be allocated housing, Warsaw has a great deal of vacant dwellings and a great many buildings that should be checked if they don’t qualify for demolition. A strategy needs to be developed to manage these properties. Some buildings can be demolished and sold for new purposes.

We should also consider the establishment of a public-private partnership to build new housing partly for communal purposes, partly for rent and partly for sale, to boost this market. Such an increase in supply could stop prices rising. But we won’t be able to lower prices. Anyone who says that they will lower the prices of flats in Warsaw is, in my opinion, a populist.

We also want to keep young people in Warsaw. A large number of young adults get their first job after university which doesn’t pay enough to afford to rent a flat by themselves.

Almost half of the Poles aged 25-34 live with their parents, new @EU_Eurostat data show.

That figure has risen significantly from two decades ago, when it was around one third, and is now among the highest in the EU https://t.co/tUCHxy7P5G

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) April 11, 2023

We want to introduce such a system, together with the universities, to provide housing for the young. A young person would have to only cover the operating cost of that apartment. They would be allowed to stay in that flat, albeit small and modest, for up to two or three years.

So in a way it would be a dorm for graduates?

Yes, but there will also be a condition that, during this time, the young person puts aside part of their income in an account that he or she will only be given access to after moving out. This money can then be used for a down payment.

Would such a programme also be available to foreigners studying at Warsaw universities? Poland is an increasingly attractive destination and last academic year the number of foreign students in Poland exceeded 100,000 for the first time.

Our main goal is to establish a system for Polish students but, at the same time, we want to be a very inclusive city so we ought to have an offer for young foreigners who are eager to live in Poland and make their dreams come true in Warsaw.

As time passes, Warsaw is gaining better international recognition and will be an attractive destination for more and more foreign students. I strongly believe in this bright, Polish future. Taking this under consideration, we should encourage foreigners to study here.

When you launched your mayoral campaign, the public was quickly reminded that in 2020 you expressed agreement with the words of a local education official under your authority who likened LGBT people to a virus. How do you assess this statement of yours now?

Already when I was coming out of that conference, I knew I had made a mistake.

So why didn’t he then retract these remarks back then? Why are you doing it only now when you are running for mayor of Poland’s most liberal city?

This is a very harsh opinion! No one asked me about these remarks after that conference. At the same time, I didn’t debate any ideological issues such as capital punishment, abortion, LGBT or euthanasia. My political agenda is focused on local government, security, economic growth and the quality of the law-making process. It is my mindful decision not to meddle in ideological quarrels.

Poland’s education minister has defended the words of an official who warned that young people are threatened by an „LGBT virus” more dangerous than COVID-19.

„We are against the propagation in schools of this…aggressive ideology,” says the minister https://t.co/zPllJS6HUh

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) August 25, 2020

Will you give permission for the Warsaw Equality Parade to march the streets of the city?

The Equality Parade will march around Warsaw under my rule, just like all other legal protests.

I made a pledge, and I am sticking to it, that I will not address ideological and national issues in this campaign at all. If someone asks me, like you are now, I will answer these questions but I believe that local government officials purposely throw in these topics because they polarise society and stir up emotions to cover other issues. Local government elections should be about what we talked about earlier.

I ask about the Equality March because it was banned the last time there was a mayor from PiS, the party you are running for, in Warsaw. It was the late Lech Kaczyński, an iconic figure for conservatives. What do you think about his decision?

I do not remember the context so I do not want to comment on it. I think those were different times and it is possible for views to evolve. Society changes, there are cultural changes and everyone adapts. Some people radicalize in their progressive views and others become more moderate conservatives. You can see that in the UK for example.

Tens of thousands of people today marched through central Warsaw at the annual LGBT Equality Parade.

This year’s event was held jointly with the KyivPride marchhttps://t.co/Q1nFDshBwg

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) June 25, 2022

PiS is quite fiercely opposed to the current national government. As mayor of Warsaw, you would have to cooperate with that government. How do you envisage this cooperation?

I must note that I am not a member of PiS. I have never been a member of any party although it was the PiS government that appointed me as a provincial governor.

I know that there are people in the current government who think differently from me on a huge number of issues but I have no problem in sitting down together on the issue of Warsaw and finding agreement.

I think that should be a norm although, in all democracies today, we are seeing an erosion of that kind of attitude.

At the parliamentary in October, PiS lost its majority. In your opinion, what was the reason for this?

Firstly, the decision of the Constitutional Tribunal [to introduce a near-total abortion ban] following a motion tabled by conservative MPs. I would not have supported this motion but I respect those who did because they followed their conscience

But the path that led to this decision was wrong. Such decisions should be made on a more transparent basis for voters. It was probably the first time in Poland that such a fundamental issue was settled by a Constitutional Tribunal ruling. If there had been a referendum or a parliamentary debate on the law, some kind of discussion, it would have been different from a situation where we have pandemic lockdowns and a verdict is made that society has no influence on.

Poland’s prime minister has admitted it was a “mistake” for the ruling party to push for the constitutional court to introduce a near-total abortion ban in 2020.

He claims “he has always been a supporter” of the abortion law that existed before the ruling https://t.co/QObza3Raxk

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) November 6, 2023

I understand those who took to the streets to protest because it simply wasn’t a normal path for such changes.

I consider this to be the fundamental reason for why PiS was defeated, particularly in large cities such as Warsaw.

Another is undoubtedly the economic crisis caused by the war in Ukraine, i.e. the situation where Poland was flooded with grain, which caused a huge loss of confidence in the government among farmers. And a third thing is tax reforms, especially the reform of the health levy.

Is there any decision made by your main opponent, incumbent mayor Rafał Trzaskowski, that you find good?

I believe I am in the large minority but I like the pedestrian and bicycle bridge over the Vistula even though many of my voters say it is a scandal. But I think it is a symbol of the fact that you can get around the city in a different way than by road.

At the same time, I think that, as a symbol of mayorship, it is not enough. Every mayor leaves something behind that is symbolic and tangible. Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz [mayor from 2006-18] continued to build the sewage treatment plant. Kaczyński built the Warsaw Rising Museum, came up with the idea for the Copernicus Science Centre, rebuilt Nowy Świat and Krakowskie Przedmieście. These are important things. Rafał Trzaskowski only continued the work of his predecessors and made that footbridge. In my opinion, that is not enough.

And what do you plan your opus magnum will be?

I cannot say now. I have in my mind projects that are ambitious and go beyond one term.

Notes from Poland is run by a small editorial team and published by an independent, non-profit foundation that is funded through donations from our readers. We cannot do what we do without your support.

Main image credit: Dawid Zuchowicz / Agencja Wyborcza.pl

Alicja Ptak is senior editor at Notes from Poland and a multimedia journalist. She previously worked for Reuters.

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