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WARSAW, Poland – Poland's main left-wing party was once a major player. It helped bring Poland into the European Union, sent troops to Iraq and let the CIA operate a secret prison for terror suspects.
Today the Democratic Left Alliance — heir to the Cold War-era's Communists — is fighting for its very existence. Corruption scandals and a failure to inspire young voters have eroded its standing, leaving Poland's political scene without a viable center-left party.
With presidential and parliamentary elections coming up this year, the left-wing party's leader, Leszek Miller, has gambled on an unknown and untested presidential candidate to reverse the party's sharp decline: Magdalena Ogorek, a 36-year-old former bit-part actress and TV presenter with striking good looks — whom some Poles dub a "Barbie" candidate. While Ogorek has a doctorate in history, she has virtually no political experience.
The 68-year-old Miller says he is counting on her youth and energy to attract new voters to the party, whose ranks include many former communists like himself — a major factor in the party's decline in this young, Western-looking democracy.
So far the tactic seems to be backfiring. Ogorek has attracted the praise of Playboy and other men's magazines thanks to her looks, but many Poles, even the party's traditional supporters, say Miller has made the party look foolish by choosing an unknown candidate without political experience to compete for the prestigious position, a job once held by Solidarity founder Lech Walesa.
"This is a disaster — it shows the party has no serious program," said Stanislaw Mrowczynski, a physics professor who has supported the party in the past but won't vote for Ogorek. "For me this is like a cabaret. She isn't a serious candidate."
He and many other left-leaning Poles are hugely frustrated because they would like a strong left-wing party to stand up for secular causes in this largely Roman Catholic country. They say a progressive force is needed to work for a better health care system, women's rights, and other issues of social justice. Instead, the Democratic Left Alliance's support (in coalition with a smaller left-wing party) has dropped from more than 41 percent in 2001 to less than 9 percent in local elections in November.
Conservatives have controlled the government and the presidency since 2005.
Today both the ruling party, Civic Platform, and the main opposition party, Law and Justice, are broadly conservative. Both have succeeded in siphoning off some of the left's supporters, Civic Platform by embracing liberal positions on some issues, like in vitro fertilization; Law and Justice by advocating a stronger welfare state along with conservative pro-Catholic values.
Miller, a former prime minister, and his party colleagues have also been compromised by their recent admission that they allowed the CIA to operate a secret prison in Poland from 2002-2003, where terror suspects were tortured.
Many left-wing voters say they will have no choice but to support incumbent Bronislaw Komorowski, a former Solidarity activist and popular leader who is widely expected to win re-election in the May balloting.
Ogorek is also facing criticism for failing to take even a single question from journalists since her candidacy was announced in early January.
There were jokes at her expense after she called for better ties with Russia during a speech to the party faithful on Feb. 14. She said that if she wins, she won't be afraid to pick up the phone to talk directly to President Vladimir Putin. Since then a cartoon has circulated online with Putin on the phone saying: "Magda? It's good that you called. I was waiting."
Another sign of a left in tatters is its lack of unity, with three others in the running for the presidency. One is Anna Grodzka, Poland's first and only transsexual lawmaker. Though well-liked, Grodzka lacks broad appeal because she is mainly focused on transsexual rights. Another, feminist activist Wanda Nowicka, is also narrowly associated with that one cause.
The fourth candidate, Janusz Palikot, made a grand entry into parliament in 2011 at the head of a new left-wing party. But his support has shriveled to nearly nothing amid a perception that he isn't sincere. A proclaimed supporter of women's rights, he said in a 2013 dispute with Nowicka that she "maybe wanted to be raped," one of several episodes to undermine his credibility.
Ogorek is polling at around 5 percent while the other left-wing candidates have even less support. There are also several center-right candidates in the running for the May 10 presidential race.
Malgorzata Halaba, a former supporter of the Democratic Left Alliance, feels "insulted" by the choice of Ogorek and finds the other candidates on the left too weak to support.
"I don't have any options as a voter. It's really frustrating," said Halaba, a former journalist. "Poland needs something new on the left — a completely new party."