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WARSAW, Poland – It's being called the biggest shock in Polish politics in years: President Bronislaw Komorowski apparently lost the first round of the country's presidential election to a previously unknown 42-year-old member of the European Parliament.
The defeat for the communist-era dissident, who has longed polled as one of the nation's most trusted leaders, is a sign that parliamentary elections this fall could be unpredictable. And it could even signal a possible return to power for Law and Justice, the right-wing group backing Sunday's winning presidential candidate Andrzej Duda. It favors a more confrontational attitude to the European Union and neighbor Germany than that of the ruling Civic Platform.
A runoff in two weeks will decide the final outcome, but for now exit polls show that Komorowski took just 33 percent of the votes compared to more than 34 percent for Duda. The official results in Sunday's vote, in which 11 candidates ran, are expected late Monday or Tuesday.
Even if the official outcome varies slightly from the exit poll, the result is undeniably a defeat for Komorowski, a center-right leader who earlier this year was expected to easily win far above 50 percent of the vote, avoiding a runoff altogether.
When Law and Justice ran the government, from 2005-2007, Poland clashed repeatedly with officials in Brussels and ties with ally Germany grew strained. The party has also been extremely critical of Russia. Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin for the death of his twin brother, the late President Lech Kaczynski, in a 2010 plane crash. No evidence has emerged to back up his theory.
Adam Michnik, editor of the influential daily Gazeta Wyborcza, wrote of what he called the "suspicion and fear" that reigned in Poland at the time, when the government fought corruption and the influence of former communists in ways that many Poles felt amounted to excessive state intrusion.
Another commentator, Pawel Wronski, called Sunday's apparent results "the biggest surprise in Polish politics in the last years."
Komorowski's poor showing clearly reflects growing dissatisfaction with the way the country is going under Civic Platform, a business friendly party which has been in power since 2007. The party was founded by the former prime minister, Donald Tusk, now the head of the European Council. Commentators say Komorowski has suffered from being closely identified with the party and not opposing unpopular proposals, such as raising the retirement age.
The strong showing in the presidential race for Pawel Kukiz, a former punk rock musician with an anti-establishment message, was another sign that Poles are disgruntled. Kukiz came third with 20 percent of the vote after campaigning for Poland to introduce single-member constituencies like in Britain to replace the current party list system, part of a larger message that the system is rotten.
Kukiz argues that choosing individual candidates rather than parties in electing lawmakers to parliament will be more transparent and give voters more influence.
The final outcome will depend a lot on where those protest votes go in the runoff, to be held May 24.
Already on Monday Komorowski signaled a desire to fight for the Kukiz voters, announcing plans for a referendum on single-mandate constituencies. He said the referendum would also include propositions on ending the funding of political parties from tax money and the protection of taxpayers in disputes with state financial authorities.
To the outside world, it might seem strange that Poles would feel frustrated given that the country has one of the fastest growing economies in Europe.
But many Poles, especially those in the countryside, are not enjoying higher wages, job security or other economic benefits that seem to be falling to only certain groups.
The most striking example of the malaise is the more than 2 million Poles who have emigrated since Poland joined the EU in 2004 seeking economic opportunities in Britain and elsewhere. Surveys show that many more want to join them. Kukiz has called the exodus an "extermination" of the Polish people.
Other problems include a flawed public health system and a dysfunctional bureaucracy.
Sunday's voting was a catastrophe for the left. The two left-wing candidates, Magdalena Ogorek, representing a successor party to the communists, and Janusz Palikot, together took only 4 percent, according to the exit poll, conducted by Ipsos for various media outlets.