In Polish election, a rivalry deepened by tragedy

October 5, 2011 - 6:00 AM
Poland Elections

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of Poland's main opposition party PiS, Law and Justice, attends a news conference at the PiS headquarters in Warsaw, Poland, Monday, Oct. 3, 2011. Parliamentary elections will take place in Poland on Oct. 9. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland's centrist ruling party was campaigning hard to maintain its lead before weekend elections, fending off challenges from a new socially liberal party and a traditional rival that has accused it of responsibility for a plane crash that killed a generation of top politicians.

Prime Minister Donald Tusk's Civic Platform appeared headed to re-election after four years of overseeing impressive economic growth and guiding the nation through its worst tragedy in decades, the plane crash that killed the president and dozens of other state officials. But, some polls have shown its popularity slip to around 30 percent, after long holding at a solid 40 percent or more.

The pro-market party is facing a new socially liberal political movement that is cutting into its base, a testament to the traditionally Catholic country's growing embrace of secularism.

It is also fending off a strong — and increasingly personal — challenge from the populist Law and Justice party of former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the twin brother of the president who died in last year's plane crash.

The government also seems to be losing some support as Poles get jittery about the economy. Fears of new economic trouble have battered the Polish currency and markets in recent weeks, and raised questions about whether Poland could repeat its feat of 2009, when it was the only European Union country to post growth as others faced recession.

Overshadowing the race is the personal rivalry between Tusk and Kaczynski. Though once on the same side of the barricade in Lech Walesa's anti-communist Solidarity movement, the two later grew into rivals. Now, their mutual distaste for each other has deepened into apparent hatred since the 2010 plane crash in heavy fog in Russia that killed President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski has openly accused Tusk's government of killing his brother, arguing that hostility to the president led to lax security procedures that were among the causes of that disaster. He has also at times encouraged conspiracy theories suggesting Tusk and Russian authorities purposely brought the plane down.

There are anxieties in Tusk's circles that should Kaczynski win, he would use his power to seek revenge on those he blames, diverting the country's attention from other problems.

"He is looking for those responsible for the crash," Tusk said in an interview published Tuesday in the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper.

"We can assume that he needs power not in order to solve the problems of the country, but to take revenge on those who, in his imagination, are guilty," Tusk said. "This may lead to even greater internal divisions and to an aggravation of relations with the world."

Lech Kaczynski was elected separately from Tusk's government, and while Tusk doesn't deny that the two sides were often at loggerheads, he strongly denies any intent to hurt Kaczynski. A government report into the plane crash pointed to poor pilot training and human error as the main causes.

The government has since fired some officials in charge of organizing the flight, and has launched a far-reaching overhaul of air travel procedures for state officials.

Though some other smaller parties are also vying for votes, the main battle pits Tusk's party against Kaczynski's — also on ideological grounds.

Tusk favors more privatization of state enterprises and a slew of other pro-market reforms, and is a strong supporter of close ties with the European Union and reconciliation with Russia, Poland's historic foe. The 54-year-old can count on the votes of many of the younger wine and cappuccino-drinking Poles in cities buoyed by the country's growing wealth.

Kaczynski, by contrast, favors greater state control over key state industries and higher state spending to help the poor, families and other vulnerable Poles — making him popular among the less privileged and those outside the cities.

When he was prime minister from 2006-2007, he pursued a foreign policy that was much more skeptical of both Russia and Germany. That won the 62-year-old detractors in Brussels — but the solid support of many older Poles who remember the atrocities inflicted on Poland during World War II by Germany and the Soviet Union.

If Tusk's Civic Platform wins on Sunday, it would make history by becoming the first to ever win two consecutive terms since the fall of communism in 1989, underlying the growing stability that has replaced the political turmoil of the early years of democracy.

In the first 18 years after communism, Poland had a total of 13 governments — a new one taking over on average every 17 months. Now Tusk's party, with its strong chance at winning a new four-year term, faces the possibility of an unprecedented eight years straight.

According to a poll published Wednesday by Gazeta Wyborcza, 31 percent of voters plan to vote for Civic Platform and 21 percent for Law and Justice.

Three other parties could also enter parliament:

—The Democratic Left Alliance, the heir to the Communists and today a socially liberal and pro-capitalist party, would win 9 percent.

—The government's current junior partner, the agrarian Polish People's Party, would get 6 percent.

—Most surprisingly, 7 percent said they will vote for Palikot's Movement, a new socially and economically liberal party founded by entrepreneur and maverick lawmaker Janusz Palikot. It supports gay rights and the legalization of marijuana and wants to strip the Catholic church of the power it enjoys in political life. Those have not traditionally been popular causes in this conservative and deeply Catholic country, the homeland of the late Pope John Paul II.

The poll carried out Oct. 3 gave a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

It showed that a significant number — 23 percent — remain undecided, adding to the suspense in Poland over the outcome.

Under Poland's parliamentary system, the party that wins the most votes is charged with forming a government. The final makeup of the government will depend not only on which party wins but by how much. That will determine whether it can govern alone or will need to look to another party to build a coalition.

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Associated Press writer Monika Scislowska contributed to this report.