Poland was voting Sunday in the first round of a presidential election focused on security and social issues that incumbent Bronislaw Komorowski is tipped to win, but only after a run-off vote.
Komorowski, a 62-year-old historian who took office in 2010 after the death of his predecessor in a plane crash, is seeking a second five-year term.
His 10 challengers for head of state of the EU and NATO member include a conservative lawyer 20 years his junior and a middle-aged rock star.
Opinion polls showed Komorowski, who is backed by the governing centrist Civic Platform (PO) party, losing ground in the run-up to the election, with his support falling from almost 50 percent support a few months ago to under 40 percent in recent days.
His main challenger Andrzej Duda, a 42-year-old lawyer, is credited with nearly 30 percent backing. If no candidate wins over 50 percent, a second round of voting will be held on May 24.
In Poland, the president has limited powers, which include steering defence and foreign policy and the right to veto legislation.
The central European powerhouse of 38 million people is also gearing up for a parliamentary elections in the autumn, in which the PO faces a stiff challenge from Duda’s conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party.
Komorowski’s campaign has focused on national security concerns raised by Russia’s meddling in conflict-torn neighbouring Ukraine.
Duda, who is supported by the Solidarity trade union, has chosen to put the emphasis on economic and social issues, vowing to lower taxes and the minimum retirement age, among other pledges.
Unlike Komorowski, he backs the opposition of Poland’s powerful Catholic Church to in-vitro fertilisation.
Komorowski urged Poles to turn out and make their mark as he voted Sunday in central Warsaw.
A smiling Duda kept mum as he cast his ballot in the southern city of Krakow. Voting got underway at 0500 GMT, with exit polls due at the close of polls at 1900 GMT.
The PO’s unkept promises on tax reforms for small and medium-sized businesses have undermined support for Komorowski.
Slawomir, a construction worker in Warsaw, said his ballot went to Duda.
„I’d rather see the president occupy himself with the everyday problems of average Poles. Instead all the talk is about security and the Russians out to get us,” the 47-year-old told AFP, declining to reveal his surname.
One of the candidates tipped to capitalise on the growing disenchantment of voters, particularly young people, is Pawel Kukiz, 51, an anti-establishment rocker.
Surveys show the newcomer to politics coming third, with around 15 percent support.
Pawel, a 40-year-old Warsaw banker said Kukiz got his protest vote.
„It’s a red card in round one because in round two I’ll probably vote for Komorowski. But for now, I want to send those in government a signal that they had better get to their act together,” he told AFP, declining to reveal his surname.
Komorowski, a former defence minister, has repeatedly warned of the threat to Poland from Russia’s military resurgence.
„It’s been a long time since an armed conflict has been as close to Polish borders as the one today,” he warned last weekend, evoking Russia’s „aggression” against neighbouring Ukraine.
„He’s very stable and hasn’t started a war with anyone. Things could be different with someone who’s a loose cannon,” delivery truck driver Wieslaw Banachowicz, a Komorowski voter, told AFP.
Political analyst Eryk Mistewicz said the campaign had „highlighted a divide between people who benefitted during the 25 years since the fall of communism in 1989, and those who feel lost”.
„Komorowski is backed by voters who think Poland has benefitted from its renewed freedom, while all other candidates are supported by people who are unhappy,” he said.
Duda, a fiery orator, has sought to lure disenchanted voters with promises of generous social benefits.
„His promises go well beyond the powers of the president,” Radoslaw Markowski, a political scientist at the Polish Academy of Sciences said, warning that Duda’s platform „would even ruin the (much larger) German budget!”
The other, less popular contenders include a leftist political unknown and a handful of populist right-wingers.
Bernard Osser (AFP, Warsaw)