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Poland election: Can late president Kaczynski’s twin brother pull off an upset?

WARSAW, POLAND — More than two months after the tragic plane crash in Smolensk, western Russia, which killed Poland’s President Lech Kaczynski, his wife, and 95 state officials, Polish voters are set to elect the country’s new president.
The two mo

WARSAW, POLAND — More than two months after the tragic plane crash in Smolensk, western Russia, which killed Poland’s President Lech Kaczynski, his wife, and 95 state officials, Polish voters are set to elect the country’s new president.

The two most prominent contenders in the Poland election are Parliament Speaker Bronislaw Komorowski from the ruling Civic Platform (PO), who has been serving as acting President since the April 10 death of President Kaczynski, and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the late president’s twin brother and leader of the opposition Law and Justice party (PiS).

Most polls have given Mr. Komorowski a clear lead over Mr. Kaczynski, some even suggesting he could be elected with more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round. But this advantage has been narrowing at the campaign’s end. Analysts say that this is due to Mr. Komorowski’s low-profile campaign, as well popular discontent over the government’s action in response to heavy floods that hit Poland in May, causing serious damage throughout the country.

Wobbly polls
A June 16 poll by the state-run Public Opinion Research Center indicated that, in the first round, voters are likely to favor Komorowski over Kaczynski by 47 to 31 percent. But another poll conducted by the TNS OBOP company puts Komorowski’s advantage at only 7 percent.

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Kaczynski’s right-wing Law and Justice party was ousted from power by the center-right Civic Platform in 2007, after two years of governing in a coalition with two extreme-right and populist parties.

Kaczynski, who was named the party’s candidate after the unexpected death of his brother, has lately been trying to soften his tough rhetoric and woo undecided voters. This strategy, it seems, has been quite successful.

“In my opinion, the Polish society has rebuilt the bond of national unity since the Smolensk tragedy,” Mr. Kaczynski said in an interview for the Rzeczpospolita newspaper. “We have to make good use of this unique chance and make a fresh start.”

Some voters doubt Kaczynski’s softer stance
Still, despite the candidate’s shift to a less confrontational tone, some experts argue that many Poles doubt the authenticity of Mr. Kaczynski’s sudden change of heart.

“Memory of Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s government is still fresh in many voters’ minds,” says Roman Benedykciuk, coordinator of the Polish program at the liberal Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom. “In the past, Kaczynski has portrayed himself as a tough and rigid politician, reluctant to compromise both in domestic and international politics.”

Kaczynski’s efforts, aimed at soothing his image, were perhaps best visible in a video message he released in May. The message, addressed to “our Russian friends,” pictured Kaczynski – whom many had regarded as an anti-Russian politician – thanking Russian citizens for “every gesture of compassion and sympathy” they have shown to Poles since the tragedy.

Patriot diplomacy
Warsaw’s long-strained relations with Moscow have improved since the accident, and Russian and Polish authorities have engaged in close cooperation on investigating the plane crash. However, the recent deployment of US MIM-104 Patriot missile launchers in the military base of Morag, northern Poland, has created a new row between Poland and its former master.

A sharp exchange between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Polish counterpart Radek Sikorski casted doubt on the genuineness of the recent thaw between the two countries.

“Even if the Smolensk tragedy did warm up Poland’s relations with Russia, it hasn’t changed the often contradictory interests of the two states,” says Jan Filip Stanilko, a political analyst with the Sobieski Institute, a conservative think tank.

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European crossroads
The Sunday vote is expected to be a clear sign as to whether Poles want their country to engage deeper in the European Union and eventually adopt the euro as its currency, or, on the contrary, impede the push towards European integration.

Mr. Kaczynski’s eurosceptic PiS party is the UK Conservatives’ key ally from their European Conservatives and Reformists group in the European Parliament.

On the other side of the political scene, Mr. Komorowski’s PO is a member of the pro-federalist European People’s Party grouping, where it stands shoulder-to-shoulder with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP).

A former communist country, Poland joined the NATO in 1999 and has been a European Union member state since 2004.

“No matter which candidate wins the election, the president and the government will have no other choice than to work closely together. Ensuring that the Polish economy is managing to withstand the turbulence in the Eurozone is an absolute priority,” argues Mr. Stanilko.