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Poland leaning right in election

Policy fight looms after today's vote

WARSAW -- Poland heads into general elections today, with two center-right parties set to quash the governing former communists and touch off a struggle over economic policy in the EU's biggest new member.

The front-running parties say they will form a coalition, which polls suggest could control two-thirds of Poland's parliament -- enough to change the constitution.

But it remains unclear whether pro-market economic liberals devoted to reducing state bureaucracy or a socially conservative party determined to preserve welfare-state protections will emerge with the upper hand.

In a poll published Friday, the pro-market Civic Platform had 34 percent support, ahead of the conservative Law and Justice party on 29 percent.

The GfK Polonia institute questioned 965 Poles from Sept. 17 to 20 for the survey, which had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Still, another survey last week gave Law and Justice a slight edge, suggesting Poland could mimic Germany, where voters last weekend got cold feet about pro-market changes.

Friday's poll gave the governing Democratic Left Alliance only 4 percent, not enough to make the 5 percent threshold for entering parliament.

Though the party came to power with 41 percent support in 2001 and saw the country into the European Union last year, its popularity has plummeted amid a string of scandals and its failure to tackle the highest jobless rate in the European Union, currently 17.8 percent.

President Aleksander Kwasniewski, a former communist and ex-member of the alliance, warned Friday that the expected lurch to the right could be dangerous if it goes too far.

A landslide ''would mean the triumph of one side, and every triumph is dangerous because it carries the seed of arrogance, pride, and mistakes," Kwasniewski said on state radio.

The front-running parties, both rooted in the anticommunist Solidarity movement, have promised to govern together in a coalition. But the tone between them has grown strident in recent days.

Law and Justice has said Civic Platform's plans for a single, 15-percent income tax rate would help only the rich, and has run television spots showing food disappearing from a refrigerator to illustrate their contention that it will hurt low-income families.

But Jan Rokita, Civic Platform's candidate to be prime minister, argues that only pro-market reforms can boost business and generate wealth in this former Soviet bloc country, where the average monthly salary is about $775.

The next government will face the task of preparing the country to join the euro zone, which will mean painful spending cuts to trim its budget deficit. Both leading parties support adopting the common European currency.

The business community favors a Civic Platform victory, and Poland's currency, the zloty, fell in Wednesday trading after a poll indicated that Law and Justice was ahead.

If the outcome is very close, the choice over who will be prime minister could be complicated by the fact that Poland also faces presidential elections Oct. 9, with a likely runoff vote two weeks later.

Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski's identical twin brother, Warsaw Mayor Lech Kaczynski, is one of two leading candidates in that race.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski has said that if his brother wins, he would renounce the premiership to spare Poland the confusion of two major leaders who look alike.

A Law and Justice victory could thus leave Poland in a state of limbo, waiting to see who would become president, and consequently, prime minister.

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