The price of power in Poland

By bne IntelliNews June 23, 2010

Jan Cienski in Warsaw -

The big winner of the first round of Poland's presidential elections is neither of the two men now competing in the second round set for July 4 - instead it's the third place candidate, Grzegorz Napieralski of the ex-communist Democratic Left Alliance. That's because Napieralski and his 2m supporters hold the keys to the presidency for both Bronislaw Komorowski, the candidate of the ruling Civic Platform party, and his rival Jaroslaw Kaczynski of the right-wing Law and Justice party.

Komorowski won the first round on June 20, but with only 41.5% of the vote - something of a disappointment, as his more avid backers had been hoping he would get over 50% and win the presidency outright. Just behind was Kaczynski, with 36.5% - an unexpectedly strong result.

The election was fought under the shadow of the April 10 crash of the Polish government airliner that killed President Lech Kaczynski, who had been expected to run for re-election, as well as 95 others including Jerzy Szmajdzinski, the nominee of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), who had to be replaced by Napieralski.

With only 5 percentage points separating Komorowski and Kaczynski, the late president's twin brother, the outcome of the July 4 run-off is in doubt, and both men are scrambling to drum up new voters.

Left field

The likeliest source of those votes is in the hands of Napieralski, who ran an unexpectedly strong campaign and won 13.7% of the vote. He is already suggesting his price: calling for Poland to withdraw its 3,000 troops from Afghanistan, for a hike in the minimum wage, parity for women on electoral lists and for the state to refund in vitro fertilisation procedures - anathema to Poland's powerful and conservative Catholic Church.

The bidding has already started, although both Komorowski and Kaczynski are being careful not to alienate their core supporters, who tend to be socially conservative and wary of the Democratic Left Alliance as the heir to the Communist Party that ruled Poland for 45 years.

Kaczynski, a man who had called for the delegalisation of the SLD a few years ago, was all sweetness and light during a campaign rally in Napieralski's home city of Szczecin. "Our opponents tell us we are left wing - maybe we are," Kaczynski said coyly. His party is socially very conservative, but economically populist, which gives him some hope of appealing to left-wing voters concerned with the government's pro-business approach to the economy.

Kaczynski also said that he was striking "post-communists" from his vocabulary, and will now refer to the SLD as "the left."

There were divisions over how to appeal to Napieralski in the Civic Platform party. Janusz Palikot, an influential MP who is also a bit of a political clown, suggested forming a new coalition government with the SLD and inviting Napieralski to become deputy prime minister. That idea was not particularly appealing to Napieralski, especially considering there will be parliamentary elections next year, and in the meantime the government may be courting unpopularity as it tries to drive the deficit below the current 7% of GDP.

Meanwhile Grzegorz Schetyna, the party's parliamentary leader, continued to call Napieralski a political wheeler dealer, and said he did not see much chance of him actually endorsing Komorowski. "We are not going to talk with party leaders," he said in a radio interview. "They are not the owners of the votes they received. In Poland no one owns the electorate. We have to talk to people."

Komorowski, who was in Afghanistan visiting Polish troops, said he would make no more election promises.

For Civic Platform, the situation is an uncomfortable reminder of elections five years ago, when Donald Tusk, the current prime minister, narrowly won the first round of the presidential election, only to fall to Lech Kaczynski in the second. However, in 2005, the voters in play tended to be rural supporters of populist Andrzej Lepper, while this time they are the left-wing backers of Napieralski.

Komorowski is still the favourite to win in the second round, largely because about two-thirds of Napieralski's voters are expected to break his way, but the final result will be a lot closer than Civic Platform hoped for, and a Kaczynski victory is not out of the question.

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