Poland President Faces Runoff as Upstart Rivals Lure Voters

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Andrzej Duda
Andrzej Duda, the conservative party PiS (Law and Justice) candidate for President in the upcoming election addresses a party convection in Warsaw on Feb. 7. Photographer: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty Images

Poland’s presidential election will probably come down to a runoff after a campaign in which incumbent Bronislaw Komorowski struggled to prevent upstart challengers from chipping away at his support.

Backing for Komorowski, the ruling Civic Platform party’s candidate, fell 4 percentage points to 35 percent in a May 6-7 poll by TNS Polska for TVP Info, released on Friday. That’s short of the 50 percent needed for an outright victory on Sunday. Support for his closest challenger, Andrzej Duda of the opposition Law and Justice party, gained 2 percentage points to 27 percent. Pawel Kukiz, a former punk band frontman running as an independent, was third with 15 percent.

The European Union’s largest eastern economy is picking a president in a vote that will set the stage for parliamentary elections this fall, with Law and Justice looking to end the Civic Platform’s eight-year rule. Komorowski, 62, who polls show is the most trusted politician in the nation of 38 million, has had a difficult time matching his rivals’ energy on campaign issues ranging from euro adoption to relations with Russia against the backdrop of the conflict in neighboring Ukraine.

“Komorowski is being punished for a lazy and uninspiring campaign,” Benjamin Stanley, a research fellow at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England, said by phone on Thursday. “Before he’s woken up to the idea that Duda was a credible threat to his aspiration of winning in the first round, it was too late to arrest the momentum.”

Presidential Powers

Six surveys published in the past 24 hours show backing for the incumbent between 35 percent and 41 percent, while Duda is supported by 27-31 percent of voters.

Poland’s president can veto legislation, acts as commander-in-chief of the armed forces and has s say in foreign policy, while a separately elected parliament passes laws and picks a government. Whoever wins the five-year term will also get to appoint two members of the central bank’s rate-setting panel in the first quarter of next year and its governor in June 2016.

Investors have shrugged off the jockeying among the presidential hopefuls. Zloty bonds have become more stable than Treasuries, German bunds or Czech notes, with 15-day volatility slumping to a 10-month low this week.

The premium investors demand to hold 10-year zloty bonds over similar bunds set an 11-month high of 238 basis points on April 28, up from a seven-year low of 162 basis points reached in January. The spread stood at 216 basis points on Friday.

Big Business

Komorowski’s popularity is crumbling months after he was poised to win another five-year term by a landslide. His backing reached 63 percent in a February CBOS poll, putting him almost 50 percentage points ahead of Duda, a European Parliament lawmaker who’s 20 years the president’s junior.

While the incumbent has built his campaign around promising steady stewardship at a time of increased security threats stemming from Russia, Duda countered by putting the spotlight on economic issues.

With his youthful appearance and rapid delivery, Duda has railed against the government’s decision to increase the retirement age to 67, pledging to offset the bigger budget outlays with new revenues from big business.

“If we’re looking for money, lets check the supermarkets, the banks and all the big companies that transfer cash out of Poland,” Duda told TVN24 on Thursday. He said foreign firms have siphoned off 100 billion zloty ($28 billion) a year.

Hand Counting

In a series of TV ads early in the race, he also sought to exploit the electorate’s concern that future euro adoption would make everything from groceries to mortgage payments more expensive. While Komorowski has pledged to restart a debate on adopting the euro after a new parliament is elected this fall, he’s since said that Poland may have to hold a referendum on the currency switch.

Votes will be counted by hand after a computer problem crippled the State Election Commission during the previous local-administration ballot in November, leading to accusations of widespread fraud by Duda’s party. Law and Justice plans to send groups of supporters to monitor polling stations on Sunday.

Full official results will be announced Tuesday and there will be no partial results published, Election Commission chief Wojciech Hermelinski told reporters in Warsaw on Friday.

‘Big Bang’

Some voters have flocked to Kukiz, who’s relied on voluntary donations to fund his campaign. The ex-rock star has run on an anti-establishment platform by promising to introduce single-member constituencies to break up the existing system dominated by the two main parties.

Sporting a casual attire that’s changed little since his music days, Kukiz has appealed to Poles’ sense of national pride, calling emigration by young people to Ireland and the U.K. in search of jobs “an extermination spread over time.”

“Kukiz’s poll numbers are an indication of the mood,” said Radoslaw Markowski, a professor of political science at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw. “They show there are a half a million or million Poles out there who want a big bang.”

Kukiz’s supporters will split their vote 53 percent to 36 percent in favor of Duda in the second round, according to an April 16-22 survey by research company CBOS.

Yet Komorowski’s qualities should still help him carry the day in the runoff.

“The second round is probably where his appeal to known quantity, safety and security will be more important,” said Stanley from the University of Sussex. “He’ll get more support among those who’ve been wavering up to that point, but it’s not going to be a convincing majority.”

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