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Europe

Close election expected as polls open in Poland

Polls have opened in the presidential election in Poland, which was triggered by the death of President Lech Kaczynski. The campaign mood was sedate, even with topics like euro adoption and Afghanistan up for debate.

A man holds a child as he casts his ballot

Analysts predict the vote will be close

Polls opened on Sunday in Poland's presidential election, in a vote which many analysts are already anticipating will end inconclusively, leading to a second round of voting in two weeks.

But a recent opinion poll suggests center-right candidate and acting president Bronislaw Komorowski could scrape by with 51 percent of the vote, the minimum needed to avoid a run-off against right-wing candidate Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

The elections are being held early in Poland this year after former President Lech Kaczynski was killed along with 95 others in a plane crash in Russia on April 10. He was the twin brother of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who has vowed to pick up where his brother left off. As speaker of the parliament, Komorowski became acting president after Kaczynski's death.

Mourners at a national memorial service for those killed in the April crash

Kaczynski's death thrust the nation into a state of mourning

In Poland, the president is not just a ceremonial figure. He may hold less power than the prime minister but can still veto laws. The country's next president could play a role in the debate over adopting the euro and when to withdraw the country's troops from NATO's mission in Afghanistan.

Komorowski has promised to withdraw Polish troops from Afghanistan, should he be elected. He said the death of a Polish soldier last weekend was "a signal to Polish public opinion that something is not right with this mission."

Divided on the issues

Both Komorowski and Kaczynski are conservative Catholics, but take a dramatically different approach to the euro and Poland's foreign relationships. Kaczynski, who was prime minster from 2006 to 2007, could put the breaks on parliament as it takes steps toward the adoption of the euro.

"A win for Jaroslaw Kaczynski would be political hell," Prime Minister Donald Tusk, of Komorowski's Civic Platform party (PO), said recently.

Kaczynski is known for his nationalistic stance, putting up a frosty front both to the European Union and to Russia.

Presidential candidate Bronislaw Komorowski

If Komorowski wins, the PO will control the office of the prime minister and president

Poland was the only one of the 27 EU countries that did not experience a recession last year. But the global downturn has led to a budget deficit of 7 percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP). The deceased Kaczynski had often blocked efforts by the pro-business PO party from enacting market reforms and his candidate brother opposes government privatization plans.

So far the PO has failed to deliver on promises of raising the retirement age and bringing an end to pension privileges enjoyed by farmers and other groups. Party politicians have so far cited the risk of a presidential veto as a reason not to pursue those issues.

Kaczynski's right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS) is nationalistic, euroskeptic and conservative on moral and social issues but swings left on the economy and favors more state spending.

A changed tone

The death of Lech Kaczynski cast a shadow on the election, compounded by two consecutive waves of flooding that left 24 people dead in recent weeks.

"The politicians are using different words; the campaigns are not as aggressive as they normally are in Poland," said Joachim Ciecierski, head of Polish public radio's German service. "The atmosphere is calm, although you can sense a certain tension in the air because it is an important election."

There's also been a shift in the electorate. Before the plane crash, Komorowski was seen as a shoo-in for the presidency. But the death of their president has turned voters to the right.

Presidential candidate Jaroslaw Kaczynski signs campaign posters

Kaczynski has reached out to centrist voters in his campaign

"Somehow [Komorowski] had taken this almost for granted," Andrzej Krajewski of the Civic Development Forum think tank, told Deutsche Welle. "In opinion polls he was far ahead of his contenders, including President Kaczynski, and now he's in a very difficult position. As acting president he will have to execute presidential power, which includes a lot of nominations and a lot of moves which will be measured against his presidency."

Kaczynski was known for his acerbic remarks but has toned down his rhetoric in this campaign in a bid to woo centrist voters. "For now, Jaroslaw is not obliging [PO] and is playing the kindly old duffer who wants to use this national tragedy to overcome old animosities and unite the nation," wrote Preston Keat of Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, in an analytical note this week.

Author: Holly Fox (AFP/dpa)
Editor: Martin Kuebler

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