Poles choose between acting leader and dead president’s twin brother in presidential runoff

By Vanessa Gera, AP
Sunday, July 4, 2010

Poles pick president in final round of voting

WARSAW, Poland — The twin brother of Poland’s late president sought to succeed him in office on Sunday in a tight runoff election that will determine how far this former communist country goes in embracing free-market reforms.

Both presidential candidates, Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Bronislaw Komorowski, are former anti-communist activists with conservative, Roman Catholic upbringings. Yet they differ sharply on key issues, primarily the role of the state in the economy.

Komorowski would be expected to smooth the way for the government to continue privatizing state-run companies and trim welfare benefits, while Kaczynski, the late president’s identical twin, would likely block such moves.

An election was originally set for the fall but had to be called early to replace President Lech Kaczynski, who died April 10 in a plane crash in western Russia. The crash also killed his wife Maria and 94 others, including many high-ranking military and government officials.

It was the worst tragedy to strike Poland in decades and set a tone for a somber election campaign free of the dirty political maneuvering that often precedes Polish elections. For a vote forced by such a dramatic event, the recent weeks have been strikingly uneventful.

However, the tragedy has reshaped the public image of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who only months ago was one of the country’s least popular politicians due to his combative and divisive style. Kaczynski is viewed as the more charismatic candidate, but many Poles remember the chaotic government he led from 2006-2007 and his zealousness in trying to eliminate former communists from public life — an approach that critics described as a witch hunt.

But in a race between two conservatives and the left-wing vote up for grabs, Kaczynski has set a strikingly new tone, even taking Poles by surprise in recent days when he praised a leader of communist Poland, Edward Gierek, as a “patriot.”

Many Kaczynski critics have criticized him for what they view as a cynical campaign strategy.

“I voted for Komorowski for the simple reason that I don’t trust people who change suddenly,” said Tomasz Adamski, 52, who cast his ballot in Warsaw. “Komorowski is not my ideal but the contrast between these two candidates made me decide to choose Komorowski.”

A first round of voting on June 20 ended with no candidate winning an absolute majority, leading to Sunday’s runoff between Kaczynski and Komorowski, Poland’s acting president and parliament speaker.

More than 30 million of Poland’s 38 million citizens are registered to vote. The first exit polls will be released immediately after polls close at 8 p.m. (1800 GMT), but official results are not expected until Monday.

By 5 p.m. (1500 GMT), the state electoral commission said just over 42 percent of registered voters had cast ballots.

For most of the campaign, Komorowski, a moderate in the governing pro-EU Civic Platform party, has been favored, largely because he is seen as a reliable and conciliatory leader, and because his party steered Poland through the global economic downturn without falling into recession.

But a survey published Friday indicated a rise in support for Kaczynski, whose traditional conservative voter base has been reinforced by sympathy votes following his brother’s death and the toning down of his image.

“He is an honest and reliable man, just like his brother was,” said Irena Oledzka, 76, one of Sunday’s voters. The retired bookkeeper from Warsaw said at a polling station in Warsaw that she did not follow the election campaign because her mind was set on Kaczynski from the start.

Pro-Komorowski voters argued he would ensure smooth cooperation with the government.

“Komorowski … will guarantee peace in politics but will not be dependent on the government. He will have his own views,” said Jan Rostafinski, 61, a lawyer.

Maria Konieczna, a 52-year-old economist, said her vote for Komorowski was in fact a vote against Kaczynski, whom she considers too aggressive.

In the first round of the election, in which 10 candidates competed, Komorowski got 41.5 percent of the votes and Kaczynski 36.5 percent.

Poland’s president has many ceremonial duties, but he can also veto laws, and as commander in chief has influence on foreign military operations.

Komorowski has pledged to work closely with the government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk to adopt the euro in about five years, end the military mission in Afghanistan in 2012, promote pro-market reforms and keep the Catholic church separate from the state.

Kaczynski has toned down his combative and anti-communist style but kept his conservative views on family life and stressed his Catholicism. A noted euroskeptic, Kaczynski has vowed to fight for more EU funds to help Poland’s poor farm regions and is reluctant to set a timetable for the adoption of the euro. Polish businessmen tend to favor the euro, while consumers often express concern that it could raise prices.

Kaczynski is a “responsible man who will care for poor people and will protect them,” said Andrzej Urla, a 65-year-old voter in Warsaw.

A telephone poll by GfK Polonia of 1,000 adults published Friday by the Rzeczpospolita daily gave Kaczynski 49 percent of the vote to Komorowski’s 47 percent — within the error margin of plus or minus three percentage points.

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