WARSAW The party of Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk lost an election for mayor of a provincial city that had been one of his strongholds, a sign of the toll the economic slump is taking on the government's popularity.
The city of Elblag, near Poland's Baltic Sea coast, has a population of only 124,000, but it took on nationwide significance after Tusk travelled there several times to campaign for his party's candidate.
Jerzy Wilk, of the conservative opposition party Law and Justice, won Sunday's election with 52 percent of the vote, against 48 percent for the candidate from Tusk's Civic Platform party, official results showed. Civic Platform had previously held the mayor's office.
"This is a signal that we can win in the country," said Adam Hoffman, a member of parliament with Law and Justice.
Polish voters will decide whether to keep Tusk's government when the next parliamentary election takes place in 2015. He has overseen a period of political stability, and investors worry the next government could be more volatile.
A survey last month by pollster CBOS showed national support for Civic Platform at 23 percent against 26 percent for Law and Justice.
The decline in the party's popularity coincided with a sharp slowdown in the economy. Poland had defied the slump elsewhere in Europe to register strong growth, but in the past few months the economy has sagged to within a whisker of recession.
Professor Jacek Raciborski, a sociologist at Warsaw University, said Tusk's party made a tactical mistake by sending the prime minister to Elblag to campaign and so staking its national reputation on the outcome of the vote.
"The party has set itself a political test which it failed," he said. "The Civic Platform has made a rod for its own back."
The prime minister's party said it had failed to mobilise its supporters in the election, and would have to draw conclusions from the defeat.
"Without doubt this is a difficult time for the Platform," Andrzej Halicki, a member of parliament with the party, told the TVN24 broadcaster.
(Additional reporting by Karolina Slowikowska; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Mark Heinrich)