The European Parliament elections as beauty pageant

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.

So far Europe and the actual work done by the parliament have been almost absent from the election campaign.

Five years ago, many Poles were fearful of what joining the EU meant for them, particularly farmers, who feared a flood of cheap produce from France and Germany would drive them out of business. Cultural conservatives braced for a wave of secularization, loose morals and tolerance of homosexuality and abortion seeping in from the west.

That drove many of the more worried into the arms of nationalist parties like the League of Polish Families, which came in second in 2004 with 10 seats, and the agrarian populists from the Self-Defense party, which took six seats. Now, however, both of those parties have disappeared from the national scene and Poles are much more comfortable with belonging to the EU, which has meant many more benefits than costs.

“Poles quickly saw that the EU was an enormous opportunity,” said Aleksander Smolar, head of the Batory Foundation think tank. “There is a much wider acceptance of Europe.”

This year, only four parties are likely to win any seats in the European Parliament, with the lion’s share going to PO and PiS.

The wild card is the eurosceptical pan-European Libertas party headed by Irishman Declan Ganley. In a publicity coup, Ganley has managed to recruit Lech Walesa, the former president and Nobel prize laureate, to speak at a couple of his events. But so far opinion polls show Libertas not gaining much ground.

One problem is that many of the party’s more radical supporters view Walesa as a former Communist spy, and not a hero. Also, Ganley’s Polish branch is staffed mainly with out-of-work nationalists from the League of Polish Families, who have a difficult time explaining to their anti-European supporters why they are trying for seats in Brussels.

“There is no serious anti-EU party anymore,” Smolar said.

Read more about the European elections:

Reasons to care about the European Parliament elections

The Irish seek a way back into Europe