WARSAW, Poland — An exit poll suggested Poland's populist ruling party lost mayoral runoff elections Sunday in key cities including Krakow and Gdansk, though it wasn't immediately clear how hundreds of other local races were leaning.
Poland's local elections have received more international attention this year amid the rise of populist governments in other parts of Europe and around the world.
Poland's ruling Law and Justice party has taken a hard stance against migration, like U.S. President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary and the coalition government leading Italy. Law and Justice also has clashed with the European Union over moves to assert more control over the courts.
Results from the first round of voting two weeks ago and projections from Sunday's runoffs indicated the party's populist approach to governance was rejected by voters in Poland's larger cities, which have seen mass anti-government protests in the three years since Law and Justice came to power. At the same time, the ruling party has been solidifying its support in rural areas.
Runoff elections for the mayor's office in 649 cities, towns and municipalities took place between the top two vote-getters from the first round of voting conducted two weeks ago.
During the Oct. 21 first round voting, Law and Justice strengthened its position in regional assemblies but lost mayoral races outright in Warsaw, Poznan and Lodz to a centrist pro-European Union coalition led by the Civic Platform party.
With Sunday's runoffs, the opposition took at least three more of Poland's most biggest cities.
In the Baltic port city of Gdansk, incumbent Pawel Adamowicz with Civic Platform won re-election to a sixth term. The Ipsos polling agency projected support for Adamowicz at nearly 65 percent and support for the Law and Justice candidate, Kacper Plazynski, at just over 35 percent.
In Krakow, another long-serving mayor, Jacek Majchrowski, held off a challenge from Law and Justice challenger Malgorzata Wassermann. Majchrowski was also projected to win nearly 65 percent of the vote.
Ipsos' projections had the mayor's job in the city of Kielce going to another opposition candidate: Bogdan Wenta, one of the best athletes in the history of Polish handball and a former coach of the national team.
The results have highlighted deep political differences between residents of Poland's cities, which have been liberal centers of opposition to the Law and Justice-led government, and of the country's rural heartland, which remains largely supportive of the party despite its conflicts with the EU.
Official returns were not expected until Monday at the earliest.
The local elections kicked off a string of votes that will be crucial for Poland's course, including the May election choosing European Parliament representatives, the national parliament vote in fall 2019 and a presidential election in the spring of 2020.
Law and Justice won 34 percent of the total regional assembly votes two weeks ago, and the opposition coalition nearly 28 percent. One of the primary jobs of the assemblies is choosing how to spend EU subsidies.
If the ruling party maintains the level of support it received two weeks ago, it would appear to be well-poised to remain in power after the 2019 national elections, but without the parliamentary supermajority it is seeking to pursue constitutional amendments.