In Polish presidential ballot, win by right-wing challenger could signal return to turbulence

Presidential candidate Andrzej Duda is a new face in Polish politics, but he may herald a return to an older era when his right-wing party held power.

Duda, 43, is the surprise challenger to incumbent Bronislaw Komorowski in Sunday's presidential election runoff, after surging from behind to a first-place finish in the opening round.

To supporters, the era when Duda's Law-and-Justice party ruled was a golden age in which leaders fought corruption, honored forgotten World War II heroes and defended traditional, Catholic values. To critics, it was a time of witch hunts and embarrassment on the international stage, as the Kaczynski brothers, identical twin leaders who were onetime child actors, made a series of diplomatic gaffes in power.

Komorowski is a conservative, pro-European leader allied with the ruling Civic Platform party. Duda's Law and Justice is a nationalist, euro-skeptic group led by the surviving Kaczynski twin, Jarowslaw. Ahead of Sunday's runoff, polls show the race too close to call.

In a rush to help the moderate Komorowski, five former foreign ministers on Thursday issued a letter in his support, saying he "guarantees credibility and effectiveness in the international arena."

In his five years as president, Komorowski, 62, has been relatively popular and it was long assumed he would easily win the election in a first round. While somewhat reserved, he has enjoyed a reputation as a conciliatory leader, though he has recently started to seem out of touch with voters.

His poor showing in the first round reflects a broad dissatisfaction with Civic Platform after its eight years in power, a warning that the party could also have trouble in parliamentary elections expected in the fall.

Though Civic Platform has overseen unprecedented economic growth, the party is paying the price for a string of scandals and unpopular decisions such as raising the retirement age. It also suffered a blow from the departure of its former charismatic leader and prime minister, Donald Tusk, who became the EU president last year.

In protest, many votes went to anti-establishment candidates in the first round, including more than 20 percent to a punk-rock musician, Pawel Kukiz.

The president in Poland is officially the head of the armed forces, has some say in foreign policy and can propose and veto laws. But essentially the role is symbolic, carrying much less real power than the prime minister.

That hasn't stopped the two candidates from making a lot of promises.

In his stump speeches, Duda has presented himself as the candidate of change, arguing that the country needs to be repaired after eight years of Civic Platform's rule. He has repeatedly focused on the more than 2 million Poles who have left over the past decade, as he argues that the country's economic growth has not trickled down to help the majority of Poles.

His has raised hopes for higher wages and wants to lower the retirement age. He also wants new taxes on banks and large supermarket outlets, which are mostly foreign-owned, to protect Polish businesses. In a debate late Thursday he said that Poland needs to limit foreign ownership of banks.

Komorowski has stressed that he stands for conciliation and stability, and that he is also his own man, with no party leader to answer to. That is a clear reference to Kaczynski, a former prime minister who, critics say, would likely pull strings in a Duda presidency.

From 2005-2007, Law and Justice ran the government, with Kaczynski the prime minster for a time. From 2005 to 2010, Kaczynski's twin brother Lech was the president. He died in a plane crash in Russia in 2010, and was succeeded by Komorowski.

When Law and Justice was in charge, leaders waged a battle against corruption so extensive that critics accused them of civil rights violations. They drafted a law meant to root out from public life any former collaborators of the communist-era secret police, legislation so far-reaching that the constitutional court struck it down.

The Kaczynski brothers also took a combative stance toward Russia and even against Germany, the country's neighbor and ally, a populist stance that appealed to older Poles with bitter memories of the historic foes. A skeptical stance toward the EU created tensions with Brussels.

In 2006, Lech Kaczynski canceled an official visit to Germany after a left-leaning German paper satirized him as "Poland's new potato," longing to rule the world. In a debate on voting rights within the EU, his brother demanded that Poland be given voting power representing the millions of Poles who would exist today had the Germans not killed so many Poles during World War II.

The leaders also struggled with a reputation for homophobia. A senior official in the Law and Justice government caused a furor at one point for wanting to investigate whether the Teletubbies cartoon promotes a gay life style. She grew suspicious because the character Tinky Winky appears to be a boy but carries a lady's handbag.

The former foreign ministers supporting Komorowski said that under Law and Justice Poland experienced "adventurism, complexes and conflicts" that marginalized the national internationally. The letter was signed by Radek Sikorski, Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, Andrzej Olechowski, Dariusz Rosati and Adam Daniel Rotfeld.


Associated Press writer Monika Scislowska in Warsaw contributed to this report.