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Latest update : 2010-06-22

Poles go to the polls

Poland is going to the polls to elect a new president. The snap election was triggered by the tragic death of Lech Kaczynski in a plane crash that killed 96 people in April. His twin brother, Jaroslaw, is running, but with a reputation as deeply conservative and eurosceptic, can he inherit his brother's mantle?

Poland’s presidential election is taking place in exceptional circumstances. Originally scheduled for the autumn, it was brought forward to this Sunday after President Lech Kaczynski died in a plane crash on 10 April, alongside 95 others - many of them prominent figures in Polish society.

As speaker of parliament, Bronislaw Komorowski, already the governing Civic Platform party’s candidate to challenge Lech Kaczynski, became acting president after the crash. A difficult position to manage – especially after Lech Kaczynski’s twin brother Jaroslaw declared he would run in place of Lech.

Many feared Jaroslaw would not be psychologically prepared: “If he were elected, would he then sleep in the same bed as his dead brother did, eat with the same cutlery? It’s a sick idea!” commented Joanna Kowalska, a teacher. But sympathy for the family certainly helped Jaroslaw’s poll ratings. In the small town of Rawa Mazowiecka, many of those attending a Kaczynski rally cited respect for Lech’s memory as their main reason for voting for Jaroslaw.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski is seen as a peculiar man. A bachelor, he has lived almost his entire life with his mother and cat in a small house in north Warsaw. But he is anything but a new kid on the political block. Co-founder of the conservative Law and Justice party, he was prime minister in 2006 and 2007 and subsequently leader of the opposition (the liberal Civic Platform party won parliamentary elections in 2007, leaving president and parliament in opposition to one another). Widely seen as the power behind the throne of his brother’s presidency, he was even less popular than Lech, whose own poll ratings had sunk below 20 percent before his death.

But beyond the initial wave of sympathy, the campaign Kaczynski has fought has seen his ratings climb steadily. Once known as a bad-tempered, xenophobic firebrand, Jaroslaw Kaczynski has presented a radically new image. He started with a special message of friendship to the Russians and continued with appeals for consensus and dialogue among Poles, and a concerted effort to woo young voters.

Radoslaw Markowski of the Polish Academy of Sciences says Kaczynski is counting on his core electorate to stay with him, and seeking to win over more liberal-minded Poles. “He knows that in a presidential campaign, he needs 50% plus one, and the 20-30% of the vote which he was usually in the running for in parliamentary elections is not enough.”

Kaczynski, though, says the tragedy changed him as a person, without changing his political beliefs. His new style reflects a genuine mood in the country, and one that his rival Komorowski has also picked up on. Komorowski made “consensus” the buzzword of his campaign – sensing that a country reeling from the plane crash and two waves of devastating floods wants to feel united. Watching a TV debate where confrontation was conspicuous by its absence, Grzegorz Zelazowski, a baker, commented that “this is simply the way the campaign had to be in the present circumstances”.

As acting president of a country in mourning, Komorowski has steered clear of fighting an offensive campaign. But fear of a Kaczynski comeback means he remains the favourite, almost by default.

There is a certain symmetry between Kaczynski’s effort to woo liberals and the Civic Platform’s choice of Komorowski as a candidate. Komorowski appeals to more conservative voters and is less committed to free-market economics than others in his party. A sign perhaps, that at just 21 years old, Polish democracy already resembles that seen in “mature” Western countries, where two parties dominate and converge on the centre-ground…for better or for worse.

By Gulliver CRAGG

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