WARSAW Five years after losing power in a wave of corruption scandals, Poland's left remains chronically weak and divided and its candidate in next month's presidential election will be lucky to win just 10 percent of the vote.
Even the candidate himself, Grzegorz Napieralski is resigned to taking third place for his Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), behind two right-leaning rivals, though he insists younger, more liberal Poles will increasingly turn to his party in the future.
The demise of the once-mighty SLD, which until 2005 held the presidency and nearly half the seats in parliament, has left Polish politics oddly lopsided, bolstering right-wing populists and muting debate on such cherished leftist causes as gender and social equality or curbing the influence of the Catholic Church.
"We are the third biggest party in Poland today ... This election will not bring any significant breakthrough, but we see in surveys that Poland is changing," Napieralski, 36, who is also the SLD party leader, told Reuters.
"It is true that Poland is still a conservative Catholic country, but we are catching up with European standards mostly thanks to a young generation that widely uses the Internet and travels to the West for work, study or holidays."
But his hopes that the young will flock to the SLD look misplaced. Core supporters of the SLD, successor to Poland's Communist Party ousted in 1989, tend to be older people nostalgic for the economic certainties of the old regime.
Younger Poles seem unimpressed by Napieralski's overtures.
"I won't be voting for the SLD because they are useless. And actually they are not really leftist in any modern sense. They are a mixture of post-communists and people who would do anything for power," said Stanislaw, 26, a student.
"Public debate in Poland is dominated by rightist rhetoric. It is a conflict between radical rightists and more moderate rightists. Nobody really talks about women's rights, minorities, ecology and so on."
KEEPING KACZYNSKI OUT
Napieralski only decided to stand in the presidential election after the SLD's original candidate died along with 95 others, including Poland's right-wing president, Lech Kaczynski, in a plane crash in Russia on April 10.
Bronislaw Komorowski, the candidate of Prime Minister Donald Tusk's ruling centre-right, pro-business Civic Platform (PO), is expected to win the June 20 election. His main rival is Kaczynski's twin brother Jaroslaw, leader of the right-wing, eurosceptic Law and Justice party (PiS).
A survey conducted by CBOS polling agency this month showed 52 percent of voters who describe their views as leftist would back Komorowski in the presidential election against only 23 percent for Napieralski himself.
The result reflects left-leaning voters' desire to keep Kaczynski out of power rather than any love for Komorowski.
As prime minister in 2006-07, Jaroslaw Kaczynski waged a campaign against public officials he accused of collaborating with the communist regime and strained Poland's relations with both the European Union and Russia. The SLD is strongly pro-EU and pro-euro and favours better ties with Moscow.
If Komorowski, a gently spoken moderate, fails to win more than 50 percent of the vote on June 20, he would face a run-off on July 4. A PBS DGA poll showed on Thursday he would win the votes of nearly all Napieralski's supporters in a second round.
Poland is by no means the only EU country where the left is out of power. Indeed among the EU's other five big member states, the left governs only in Spain following the defeat of Britain's Labour Party in this month's national election.
In the EU's eastern wing, Hungary's left also lost power after presiding over a major economic crisis. But in the Czech Republic the left is poised to win this weekend's parliamentary election and also holds power in Slovakia. In few countries is the left's plight quite as desperate as in Poland.
"The left here just does not have a clear message, I don't know what they want," said Radoslaw Markowski, a sociologist at the Polish Academy of Sciences.
"We have two big right-wing parties and that is not healthy," he said, adding there were plenty of votes to be won for a leftist party that championed investment in education and public infrastructure, women's issues and economic reform.
Such a party should also defend Poland's secular state against encroachments from the powerful Catholic Church, he said, noting that priests often take part in state events and crucifixes adorn the walls of public offices and schools.
"Millions of people are annoyed by this church domination in Poland. After the (April 10) crash, we had to endure hours and hours of religious dogma on Polish television channels funded by taxpayers," he said, referring to church masses televised live.
"But the left is afraid of the church," he added.
Kaczynski's PiS, which mixes conservative views on the family and religion with leftist-style hostility to privatisation and support for state involvement in the economy, is a major beneficiary of the left's disarray since 2005.
"One consequence of the left's weakness is the strength of right-wing populism as represented by PiS ... Kaczynski presents himself now as the candidate of solidarity (with the poor)," said Jacek Kucharczyk, head of the Institute of Public Affairs.
"I see nobody in SLD right now who can reform this party."
(Writing by Jones, editing by Alison Williams)