Pro-EU prime minister seeks second term in Poland

October 9, 2011 - 10:40 AM
Poland Elections

Leader of Poland's opposition nationalist Law and Justice party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski kisses the hand of an election official before casting his vote at a polling station during the parliamentary elections in Warsaw, Poland, Sunday, Oct. 9 , 2011. On Sunday Poles will elect a new parliament, deciding mainly between the ruling Civic Platform party and the oppositional Law and Justice party. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poles are voting in parliamentary elections that will determine whether the country continues on its conciliatory course with Russia and Germany, or whether it returns to a more combative stance with its historic foes.

Before Sunday's voting, surveys showed Prime Minister Donald Tusk's centrist and pro-EU party in the lead, but facing a tough challenge from Law and Justice, the conservative and nationalistic party of Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

Kaczynski, a former prime minister who was unseated by Tusk in 2007, has made several anti-German comments in recent days, indicating that his Law and Justice party is prepared to resume a confrontational tone with the large neighbor to the West.

Ties with Russia will also be determined by who wins. Tusk has been trying to mend the relationship with Poland's powerful Eastern neighbor that many Poles still fear and resent.

Polish memories remain strong of Moscow's invasion of Poland's eastern half in 1939 and its dominance of the country during the Cold War. More recent sources of friction have stemmed from Poland's support for the pro-Western Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2005 and its acceptance of a Bush-era plan for a U.S. missile defense base in Poland — a project that outraged Russia but which President Barack Obama has since scaled back.

A government led by Kaczynski would certainly alter the tone. His twin brother, President Lech Kaczynski, died in a plane crash in Russia in 2010 along with 95 other people, and Kaczynski has suggested that Tusk and Russian authorities are to blame for that tragedy. Tusk has said he fears Kaczynski will seek revenge on those he blames should he return to power.

Voters in this country of 38 million will elect 460 lawmakers to the lower house of parliament, the Sejm, and 100 to the Senate. The party that wins the most seats will be charged with forming a government; in the absence of an outright majority it would need to seek a coalition partner.

Most voters leaving a polling station in southern Warsaw early Sunday said they had voted for Tusk's Civic Platform.

"Tusk is the most gifted and best politician we have," said Antoni Stapka, 60, a mining engineer. "He is open to the world, pro-European and he led us safely through the crisis."

Stapka said the opposition leader, Kaczynski, gives in to frustration, changes views and is "ready to do anything for politics, even sign a pact with the devil."

But Kaczynski's Law and Justice party also has declared backers.

"They are the only trustworthy people, they stand for what is most important in a nation's life: for justice and for the rule of law," said Edward Kalina, a 62-year-old shop owner.

Polling stations across the country are open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. (0500 to 1900 GMT; 1 a.m. to 3 p.m. EDT). Exit polls will be released when voting ends, with official results several hours later.

By 2 p.m., voter turnout was 23 percent, according to the state electoral commission. Both of the main candidates, Tusk and Kaczynski, voted in Warsaw, with Kaczynski kissing the hand of one of the female electoral workers and Tusk shaking hands with voters.

The vote will be a major test for Tusk, who has presided over a period of remarkable growth and helped steer the state during the aftermath of the plane crash — Poland's worst tragedy in decades.

To his supporters, Tusk is a moderate leader who has promoted stability and good relations with Germany — which occupied Poland throughout World War II — Russia and the European Union. They point to the fact that the economy has grown steadily on his watch, even when the rest of Europe fell into recession in 2009.

His opponents accuse him of lacking the courage to make ambitious reforms in a country with significant problems, like unemployment at nearly 12 percent and heavy state regulation that stifles businesses. The budget deficit has also grown during his term, and economists say Poland's current growth of around 4 percent will slow next year.

Kaczynski favors more state involvement in the economy to help the disadvantaged.

He is much more skeptical of outside powers and employs a strongly patriotic message. In recent days, he has provoked an uproar in Poland with a new book in which he accuses Germany of trying to subjugate Poland.

If Tusk's Civic Platform wins on Sunday, it would make history by becoming the first party to 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.

However, surveys show it unlikely to win enough votes to have an outright majority in parliament, meaning it would likely need to find a coalition partner. It had a good relationship with its junior partner of the past four years, the farm-based Polish People's Party.

It remains to be seen whether the farm-based party will win enough seats to complete a government. Two other parties expected to win seats are the Democratic Left Alliance, and its newly formed rival, Palikot's Movement, which had some 10 percent support in recent polls, largely on populist promises.

Marian Dydka, a 43-year-old worker, said he voted for Palikot's Movement because its leader Janusz Palikot, known for his unconventional ways, is the "only one really capable of running the country."

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Monika Scislowska contributed from Warsaw.