WARSAW The frontrunner in Poland's tight presidential race called on Tuesday for an accelerated pullout of Polish forces from Afghanistan in comments designed to win over leftist voters.
Bronislaw Komorowski, a moderate conservative, and his more right-wing rival, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, are both courting the left after its candidate Grzegorz Napieralski won a better-than-expected 14 percent in Sunday's first round of voting.
Napieralski said on Tuesday that withdrawal from Afghanistan and public sector health reform were the key issues for his Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) as it ponders which of the two candidates to endorse in the July 4 run-off vote.
"The time is approaching when Poland must redefine its engagement in Afghanistan and promote a change of NATO's goal there," Komorowski, who is also Poland's acting president and speaker of parliament, told a news conference.
"2011 should be the year for winding down Poland's engagement and 2012 should be the year we pull out," said Komorowski, who paid a brief visit to Afghanistan on Monday.
"If I win these elections, I wish to start curbing our engagement and then to pull out during my presidency."
In Poland, the prime minister runs the government and holds most of the political power. But the president can veto laws and has a say in foreign and defence matters. He would have to sign any government decision to bring troops home.
MOUNTING DEATH TOLL
Poland has 2,600 soldiers serving in the NATO mission in Afghanistan. It has lost 18 soldiers, two of them this month, and once-solid public support for the mission has been declining as in many other NATO countries with troops serving there.
Prime Minister Donald Tusk, whose ruling pro-business Civic Platform (PO) is backing Komorowski's presidential bid, said this month that Warsaw would press its NATO allies to draw up plans to end the mission as soon as possible.
Napieralski reiterated on Tuesday his party's demand for an Afghan pullout "as soon as possible". He also said the SLD, heir to the once-mighty Communist Party, would endorse one of the presidential candidates early next week.
Analysts expect many leftist voters to back Komorowski due to their dislike of Kaczynski's nationalistic, eurosceptic brand of conservatism. Kaczynski, a staunch supporter of the Atlantic alliance, also strongly backs the Afghan mission.
On economic policy, however, Kaczynski tilts to the left, favouring more state spending and opposing privatisation. Kaczynski is also closer to the left in opposing reform of Poland's cash-strapped state health service.
Financial markets prefer Komorowski as he would be expected to work smoothly with Tusk's economically liberal cabinet in tackling Poland's large budget deficit and preparing the country for adoption of the euro.
President Lech Kaczynski, Jaroslaw's twin brother whose death in a plane crash in Russia in April triggered the election, used his veto powers to block some government reforms, including an attempt to overhaul the state health service.
Some analysts have expressed concern that the left may seek costly social welfare concessions from the government in return for backing Komorowski, though others play down such a risk. Komorowski has ruled out any horsetrading with the left.
In Sunday's first round, Komorowski won by a smaller than expected margin, securing 41.5 percent of the vote against 36.5 percent for Kaczynski. The PO candidate remains the most likely victor in July but faces days of tough campaigning.
(Writing by Gareth Jones, editing by Noah Barkin)