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By Chris Borowski and Pawel Sobczak
WARSAW (Reuters) - Residents of the Polish capital fed-up with rising bus fares and snarled-up traffic are campaigning to oust the once-popular mayor, in a foretaste of the electoral price the national government may have to pay for a slowing economy.
Opponents of Warsaw mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz say they have gathered enough signatures to force a referendum on ending her term early and opinion polls indicate that she will lose if the vote goes ahead.
The mayor's fate is tied closely to that of Prime Minister Donald Tusk: she is deputy head of his center-right Civic Platform, Warsaw is seen as a stronghold for the party and tough economic challenges are taking a toll on Tusk's popularity too.
"A defeat in the capital could be a cold shower for the ruling party, but also quite possibly the beginning of its decomposition," said Jaroslaw Flis, a sociologist at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland's second city.
Investors in Poland, the biggest economy in ex-communist central Europe, take a close interest in what happens to Tusk's party. After years of political and economic turbulence in the post-communist period, Tusk turned Poland into an island of stability in a volatile region.
If he goes, investors fear the turbulence may return.
Tusk's government itself does not face any electoral test until the next parliamentary election in 2015 but local contests like the one in Warsaw are important bellwethers of what may happen when the whole country votes.
A survey last month by pollster CBOS showed national support for Civic Platform at 23 percent against 26 percent for its main rival, the nationalist-minded Law and Justice party.
Civic Platform's declining popularity is likely to be discussed at the party's annual congress this weekend.
Not long ago Gronkiewicz-Waltz, a 60-year-old former deputy head of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development EBRD), was one of Poland's most popular politicians.
Shiny shopping malls and skyscrapers went up around Warsaw. Work on a new metro line began. People's mood was upbeat. The mayor was tipped as a possible next prime minister.
Now, she is assailed on all sides by complaints. These include a rise in ticket prices for trams and buses, problems with the implementation of waste disposal reforms and construction projects that have made traffic jams much worse.
"The city is taking more money from me and I already don't have anything to put into the pot," said Elzbieta Zieminska, a pensioner.
The economy seems to underlie the mayor's change of fortunes. For four years, Poland's economy kept growing strongly despite the global slump. But it has now slowed dramatically. Growth fell to 0.5 percent year-on-year in the first quarter.
Municipalities' tax revenues have dropped, subsidies from central government are flat and tough national debt limits prevent cities from borrowing more money.
In an interview with Reuters, the Warsaw mayor said what was happening in her city was part of a nationwide campaign by the opposition to undermine Tusk's government.
"It's the first time we're seeing a ruling party in Poland make it into a second term, so the opposition has a growing hunger to gain power," she said.
"We are seeing an economic slowdown, so we have to maintain fiscal discipline. This is hitting tax income... We are seeing the public mood stabilize at a significantly low level, so people feel the situation is getting worse."
She said she wanted to finish her term, adding: "I don't see others having good ideas on governing either Poland or Warsaw."
A Civic Platform mayor has already been removed in a referendum in Elblag, a town of 124,000 in northern Poland. In the first round of an election this month to choose a replacement, the party's candidate came second, even though Tusk came to the town to help with the campaign.
In Warsaw, campaigners say they have so far gathered 160,000 signatures in support of a recall referendum, over the threshold needed to trigger the vote.
If turnout is three-fifths or more of those who voted in the last city election and the majority backs a recall, Gronkiewicz-Waltz will be pushed out. Either a new mayoral election would then be held or a caretaker would be named.
An opinion poll commissioned by the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza showed 41 percent of respondents approved of the mayor, down from 70 percent three years ago. Sixty-three percent said they would vote in a recall referendum.
Piotr Guzial, the mayor of Warsaw's Ursynow district who is leading the initiative to have Gronkiewicz-Waltz recalled, told Reuters he saw national issues at play.
"She was buoyed by her party's strength in the past and now she is suffering along with it," said Guzial, an independent.
"People are seeing thinner wallets ... and higher bus ticket prices. You can see stagnation both in Warsaw and in Poland. The government has run out of ideas and doesn't know what to do."
(Editing by Gareth Jones)