BERLIN // Sympathy votes in Poland's presidential election yesterday boosted support for Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the twin brother of the late president who died in a plane crash 10 weeks ago, but exit polls showed he still came in second behind the acting president, forcing a runoff vote on July 4.
The acting president, Bronislaw Komorowski, 58, a member of the centrist ruling party, Civic Platform, appeared to have fallen short of the absolute majority of more than 50 per cent needed to win outright. But his pledge to adopt the euro single currency as soon as possible and to push Poland closer to the centre of EU politics proved more popular with voters than Mr Kaczynski's eurosceptic stance.
The other eight candidates for the presidency trailed far behind the two frontrunners. The election was called after the death of the president, Lech Kaczynski, his wife, Maria, and much of the country's political and military elite in a plane crash in western Russia on April 10. It was also overshadowed in recent weeks by the worst floods to hit Poland in more than a decade. The brother of the late president, a former prime minister of Poland and the current leader of the right-wing opposition Law and Justice party, softened his combative style during the campaign and focused on calling for national solidarity at a time of crisis.
He had surprised observers with conciliatory statements such as "the Polish-Polish war must end" and stressing that a "good relationship" with Poland's neighbours was paramount. It was a far cry from his spell as prime minister from July 2006 until November 2007 when the nationalist firebrand railed against his domestic opponents and never tired of accusing the Germans of distorting the history of the Second World War and the Russians of imperialism.
His toned-down style appears to have won over some middle-of-the-road voters, but not enough to beat Mr Komorowski, who is stronger among younger, urban voters. Poland was plunged into stunned mourning by the plane crash in thick fog that killed Lech Kaczynski and 95 others, including top Polish military commanders and senior government officials and lawmakers who were en route to Katyn Forest to mark the 70th anniversary of the massacre of 22,000 Polish officers and intellectuals by Soviet secret police. Until 1990, Moscow had denied responsibility for the deaths, blaming the Nazis.
In Poland, the government sets policy, but the president can veto laws, appoints many key officials and has a say in foreign and security policy. Lech Kaczynski had thwarted the economically liberal government of the prime minister, Donald Tusk, by blocking reforms of the pension and health systems. His brother had vowed to carry on Lech's legacy. Mr Komorowski, who took over as acting president following the plane crash, belongs to the same party as Mr Tusk, and many Poles hope the duo will end the political gridlock that has been dogging this nation of 38 million.
If Mr Komorowski wins, Mr Tusk's government will have free reign to carry out its programme of structural reforms that include raising the retirement age and cutting pension privileges for farmers, unpopular measures that he had put off because Lech Kaczinski would have vetoed them. Mr Kaczynski's new softer image and the upsurge in sympathy for him narrowed Mr Komorowski's lead in the campaign. He provided a final pre-election reminder of the tragedy on Friday when he paid a highly symbolic visit to his brother's tomb in the crypt of Wawel Cathedral in the ancient capital Krakow, a place traditionally reserved for royalty and national heroes. It was their 61st birthday.
"This is a very sad birthday for me," he said later at a meeting of energy experts in Krakow. If Mr Kaczynski were to win the runoff in two weeks, he would revert to a combative nationalist stance that would harm Poland's relations with the EU, Germany and Russia. "A win for Jaroslaw Kaczynski would be political hell," Mr Tusk said during the campaign, adding that Mr Kaczynski remained the same old nationalist behind his softer image.
Ties with Russia, in particular, have improved since April 10 because of the Russian government's sensitive handling of the tragedy. The Russian president Dmitry Medvedev said after the accident: "In view of these heavy losses, I believe we can make serious efforts to draw our nations closer together, to develop economic relations and find solutions to the most difficult problems, including Katyn."
The Civic Platform party hopes that Poland's relatively strong performance during the crisis will provide support for Mr Komorowski. Poland was the only EU country to avoid recession last year, thanks to a combination of tax cuts, EU infrastructure subsidies and a steep fall in the Polish currency, the zloty, that helped exports. Poland is seen as relatively immune to possible fallout from the Greek crisis, because its public debt levels are well below those in most of western Europe.