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The European Parliament elections as beauty pageant

Polish political leaders see EP election as a chance to trot out attractive future national candidates.

WARSAW — Joining the European Union was a long-held dream for Poland, but when voters had their first chance to cast ballots for the European Parliament five years ago, only 21 percent bothered to show up.

Not many more are expected to visit the country’s polling stations next month when Poland votes to fill 50 of the European Parliament’s 785 seats. The reason is, as in almost every other European Union country, that the elections have been subsumed by national politics.

For the country’s leading parties, the vote is a test of strength before next year’s presidential elections and parliamentary elections due the year after that.

So Civic Platform (PO), the center-right ruling party, has turned the election into a popularity contest, grabbing high-profile figures to run as its candidates. The biggest coup was luring Danuta Huebner, an outgoing European commissioner heretofore associated with the ex-Communist left, to head its ticket in the Polish capital.

“I was invited by the prime minister and treated it as an interesting and attractive offer,” Huebner said. “The first elections to the EP in Poland were very weak. The joy of being in the EU did not translate into turnout. … This time around the turnout could also be low because Europe still does not have a strong identity in Poland.”

On the right, PO is running Marian Krzaklewski, one of the leaders of the Solidarity labor union and a former prominent politician who fell from favor a decade ago. Krzaklewski is controversial and argumentative, but popular with the right-wing voters that make up the core of support of the Law and Justice (PiS) opposition party. New polls suggest he is making headway in his region of southwest Poland, an economically strapped region of small towns and villages where the Catholic Church is still very powerful.

PO’s strategy seems to be paying off. A recent poll gave the party 47 percent, followed by 22 percent for Law and Justice.

Initially PiS had been reluctant to get very excited about the elections, which matter less to its generally more eurosceptical supporters. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the party’s leader, forbade most national MPs from running, fearing a drain of his most talented members to the plusher conditions of Brussels and Strasbourg (where the European Parliament spends three weeks and one week per month, respectively). But as the elections approached Kaczynski changed his mind, and now many of his top MPs are running.

“PiS first told its parliamentarians not to start, but when it saw the election was turning into a beauty contest they turned to the parliamentary party because those are the only beauties they have,” said Adam Jasser, program director Demos Europa, a public policy think tank.