Poland's first primary campaign: everybody wins?

Update: Bronislaw Komorowski won the election to become the Civic Platform party's candidate for Poland's president with 68.5 percent of the vote. In Anne Applebaum's amusing take on being the wife of a presidential candidate, specifically Komorowski's opponent Radek Sikorski, Poland's primary seems to share essential qualities with the American version.

WARSAW, Poland — Political primaries are a normal part of American political life, but in Poland voters recently got their first taste of choosing candidates for this fall’s presidential elections.

The primary, with results expected Saturday, is between two candidates of the ruling Civic Platform party, a party which is far ahead in opinion polls and is widely seen as having a very good chance of unseating the incumbent, Lech Kaczynski.

One candidate is Radek Sikorski, 47, Poland’s smooth and English-educated foreign minister. The other is Bronislaw Komorowski, 58, the speaker of parliament.

Although this is a primary, and it is dominating Polish newspapers and television, Americans would have a hard time recognizing it. For one thing, Donald Tusk, the prime minister, chose the two candidates last month after he decided not to run for the presidency himself. Anyone else who wanted to run was simply out of luck.

Tusk, who runs his centrist, pro-business party with an iron fist, has also set the rules for the campaign. The candidates are not supposed to disagree too vehemently, and the whole thing should be run in such a way as to not jeopardize party unity.

That has turned the campaign into a fairly bizarre spectacle that is almost completely devoid of content. Instead of putting forward tax plans, or spelling out a new vision for Poland’s foreign policy, the two men have been focusing on image.

Sikorski, who was educated at Oxford and has worked at a conservative Washington think tank, is running as a multi-lingual man of the world, an exemplar of the plucky Pole who made it abroad and then came home. His wife, Washington Post columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Applebaum, is trotted out as the family brain trust.

“If I win the elections, the world would have to say: 'Wow! A Polish president with an American wife. We didn't expect that. Poland is a different country than we thought,'” Sikorski told voters recently.

Komorowski, from an old aristocratic family, presents an image of stolid stability, represented by his moustache, and by his background as an activist in the anti-communist underground movement of the 1980s.

Even the televised debate between the two was stage managed. Questions were handled not by a reporter but by a senior member of the party.

Despite the fairly artificial nature of the campaign, there was a real choice for the 46,000 members of Civic Platform, who can vote either by mail or over the internet. Although both men are running hard for the country's top job, Poland's president is relatively powerless, and Tusk wants to further emasculate the position, turning it into an essentially ceremonial office.

Most of the party's parliamentary members and senior officials support Komorowski. Sikorski only joined the party after the 2005 elections; before that he was allied with Civic Platform's right-wing rivals in the Law and Justice party, whom he had served as minister of defense. Opinion polls seem to indicate that Komorowski also has more support among the party rank-and-file, although Sikorski does better among younger members and those who recently joined the party.

Sikorski was on an upward trajectory before a recent attack against President Kaczynski that was so far out of line the foreign minister later apologized. In a speech to the party faithful, Sikorski made fun of the diminutive president's height and tossed in a sly reference to past accusations that the president is an occasional tippler.

Despite the occasional hiccup, the campaign has been an enormous public relations coup for Civic Platform. The primary election has sucked out all the media oxygen for candidates from rival parties.

“This is great,” said a Civic Platform member of parliament who supports Komorowski. “All voters are talking about is Sikorski and Komorowski. People in my district are acting as if the primary will decide the final results of the presidential election.”

The opposition parties are enormously jealous that they did not come up with the idea first. Witold Waszczykowski, a senior advisor to President Kaczynski, is threatening to take Civic Platform to court because he says the primary is violating election rules by beginning campaigning too early.

“What they're doing is really unfair,” he complained.

Opinion polls show that Kaczynski has very little chance of winning re-election. He has spent much of his presidency in lock-step with his controversial twin brother, the combative leader of Law and Justice and a former prime minister, and is not seen as someone who rises above party politics, as is the tradition with Polish presidents.

Poland's unexpected primary has proved to be such a success that other parties are likely to adopt it for the next presidential election in five years, with the process becoming more open and more democratic. All that is left is for Poland to move into a U.S.-style permanent election cycle.