Former child actor wins Poland’s presidency, sealing shift to right
WARSAW, Poland – Warsaw’s conservative Mayor Lech Kaczynski won Poland’s presidential runoff vote Sunday, sealing the rise of a party headed by his twin brother that pledges to uphold Roman Catholic values and strong welfare state protections.Kaczynski, who appealed to older and poorer voters with promises to protect social safety protections that have eroded somewhat in the 16 years since the collapse of communism, defeated pro-market legislator Donald Tusk.Kaczynski, a former child actor, claimed victory and signaled that he was ready to reach out to Tusk’s party after the hard-fought election.With 91 percent of the votes counted, Kaczynski led Tusk 55.5 percent to 44.5 percent, according to election officials.”Polish society, despite all its divisions, must become one as soon as possible,” Kaczynski said, looking calm and contented. “This is a task for me as president.”Tusk conceded defeat, telling glum supporters: “Today I must tell myself I did not make it.”The outcome showed a strong come-from-behind victory for Kaczynski, who trailed Tusk 33 percent to 36 percent in the first round of voting Oct. 9.Also crucial for voters in Poland – the homeland of the late Pope John Paul II – were Kaczynski’s promises to preserve Roman Catholic values, such as a current ban on abortion and gay marriage.With Poland a new European Union member, many Poles fear that their society’s contact with the secular West threatens their traditional conservative values.Voters also apparently heeded Kaczynski’s warnings that free-market policies must not cut social welfare for the less fortunate – a message that reverberated in last month’s elections in Germany as well, where free-market appeals by conservative leader Angela Merkel found little favor with voters. She failed to get a majority and will become chancellor only in a coalition with the left-wing Social Democrats.Kaczynski would become half of an extraordinary power team at the head of Polish politics – his twin, Jaroslaw, heads their Law and Justice party, which won parliamentary election Sept. 25.The brothers, both former activists in the Solidarity trade union movement, won fame as child stars in a hit film, “Two Who Stole The Moon.” But their resemblance became a political handicap, pushing Jaroslaw to abandon his claim to become prime minister in favor of little known party official Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz.Even with Jaroslaw working behind the scenes, the two will set much of Poland’s political agenda; they have promised to fight political corruption, purge former communists from positions of influence and preserve social welfare benefits for the less fortunate.Poland’s prime minister holds most executive power, but the president can propose and veto laws, commands the armed forces and represents the country abroad.The new president will play a critical role in deciding whether to stick with the outgoing government’s plan to pull Polish troops out of Iraq by early next year.Both candidates’ parties have suggested Polish forces could stay longer if Washington promised more financial aid. Poland’s deployment of about 1,500 soldiers is deeply unpopular in the country.Kaczynski’s promises to stand up to Germany – even though the two countries enjoy good relations – appeared aimed at old voters who remember the war. His promises to keep pensions and social benefits apparently helped him win voters over 60 by a 61-39 percent margin, exit polls for TVN24 showed.”He thinks about poor people, about retired people and children, and we are retired, that’s why we voted for him,” said Danuta Niemkowska, a 71-year-old retired teacher, after she and her husband voted at a school in Warsaw’s riverside district.Kaczynski said he would formally leave Law and Justice. Although there is no requirement that he do so, the president is regarded as above day-to-day politics, and outgoing President Aleksander Kwasniewski quit his party after being elected.Kwasniewski, a former communist popular for his easy style, has served his maximum of two terms and could not run again. —–Associated Press Writers David McHugh, Monika Scislowska, Andrea Dudikova and Ryan Lucas in Warsaw contributed to this report.