Ukraine upends Poland's EU election campaign

The Ukraine crisis has shifted Poland's campaign for next month's European elections, boosting the governing centre-right party's chances as its prime minister reassures voters nervous about Russia's next move.

"Issues relating to Ukraine and Poland's security have become essential in this EU election campaign, pushing matters of domestic politics into the background," political marketing specialist Eryk Mistewicz told AFP.

Emigration, unemployment, pension and healthcare reform, education system issues and the spending of EU funds have all been overshadowed by talks with NATO allies and criticism of Russia in the run-up to May's European Parliament vote, he said.

Appearing on television against the backdrop of a F-16 fighter jet and facing a row of Polish and US troops at the Lask air base in western Poland, Prime Minister Donald Tusk offered reassurance on Monday.

"We will be unremitting in discussing a reinforced NATO presence in Poland with our allies in the military alliance," he said in a firm tone.

Such scenes are now par for the course.

Since the start of the Ukraine crisis, the head of government, his Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski and President Bronislaw Komorowski -- who is close to the Civic Platform (PO) governing party -- have never missed an opportunity to appeal to the country's sense of national security.

Earlier this month, ahead of a NATO foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels, Sikorski openly called for the Western alliance to permanently locate two brigades in Poland as a deterrent.

Twenty-five years after the fall of communism, Poles remain unable to forget the Red Army's half-century presence on their soil.

No surprise then that they have been anxiously following developments east of the border since the Russia-Ukraine standoff began -- all while patting themselves on the back for having joined NATO and the EU.

- Stirring worst memories -

"Tusk has been emphasising the security of a Poland firmly rooted in a strong and unified Europe," political scientist Edmund Wnuk-Lipinski told AFP.

For Poles, "the real issue of these EU elections is Poland's security," Tusk hammers home in a television ad showing him surrounded by European leaders.

"Poles need a state that will guarantee their safety."

It was only two months ago that his Civic Platform was seen as running out of steam after seven years in power.

Then slated to be the big loser of the EU vote, it is now seeing its popularity rise from one week to another.

Almost all opinion polls show the party leading over its main rival, the conservative opposition Law and Justice (PiS) party led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, a former prime minister and twin of late president Lech.

According to an average of the four latest EU election surveys released in Poland, Civic Platform is ahead with 28 percent while PiS has 26 percent.

Meanwhile an opinion survey carried out by the Homo Homini polling institute on Monday found that 65 percent of respondents consider the government's handling of the Ukraine crisis sufficient, while only 23 percent said it was not enough and 12 percent said they did not know.

At times, Tusk does not hesitate to dramatise the situation by stirring the country's worst memories.

"These European elections are perhaps about whether children in Poland will even go to school on September 1," he said last week, an allusion for some to that first day of school in 1939 when Nazi Germany invaded Poland.

"It's important to remind ourselves that for children to be able to go to school in Europe, in this part of the world, we cannot have war. Poland is safe, but safety isn't assured once and for all," he later said after reporters accused him of stooping to sensationalism.

Voters seem to appreciate this firm stance by their liberal premier, who by so doing has disarmed his conservative rivals, since national security was traditionally their hobby horse.

"It's a tough situation for PiS. They can't question Tusk's strategy. And by taking up the topics of Ukraine and security matters, Tusk has managed to engage their electorate," Mistewicz said.

Last week Kaczynski pulled out the security rhetoric and called for the United States to install military bases in Poland to counter Russian President Vladimir Putin's "expansionist ambitions".

But the party has limited influence according to Wnuk-Lipinski: "PiS can't compete with the liberals on the security front since, as the opposition, it doesn't have real power and can't act."

With six weeks until the elections, Civic Platform is the favourite in the race for EU seats, Mistewicz said.

"The tougher and more complicated the Ukraine situation becomes, the better the PO outcome will be."