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Poland swears in conservative Duda as new president

Andrzej DudaConservative lawyer Andrzej Duda was sworn in on Thursday as Poland’s president, promising generous social benefits and calling for a greater NATO presence in the region amid concerns over the perceived threat from Russia.

The 43-year-old devout Catholic with an easy smile, who is allied with the populist Law and Justice (PiS) opposition party, took over from liberal Bronislaw Komorowski, whom he unexpectedly defeated in a May vote.

Komorowski is close to the governing centrist Civic Platform (PO) that has been in power since 2007 but is now trailing PiS in opinion polls ahead of an October general election.

After taking the oath of office, Duda expressed thanks to the late president Lech Kaczynski, who died in a 2010 plane crash in Russia and whose controversial twin brother Jaroslaw is a former prime minister and current PiS leader.

When PiS was in power, the Kaczynski twins pursued a conservative agenda hostile to both Russia and the European Union. Their right-wing coalition government fell, doomed by infighting.

Duda has expressed fidelity to the views of the twins and recently sang the praises of Jaroslaw in an interview: “He’s a great politician, often disparaged but able to recover every time. Poland has few politicians as strong and determined as him.”

But Duda has sought to stress his independence by pledging not to surround himself with close Kaczynski aides.

He also quit PiS after winning the presidential vote, saying: “A president should not represent a party. He should be at the service of society as a whole.”

– ‘Greater NATO presence’ –

The president of the central European powerhouse of 38 million people has limited powers, which include steering defence and foreign policy and the right to veto legislation.

Stressing security, Duda on Thursday called on the NATO defence alliance to do more for the region.

“All of us in central-eastern Europe need a greater NATO presence here given the current difficult geopolitical situation,” he told parliament, referring to Russian meddling in neighbouring Ukraine.

He said he hoped that “that would be guaranteed explicitly” at the next NATO summit in Warsaw next year.

At home Duda pledged to introduce the social benefits he promised in fiery campaign speeches, including new tax exemptions and a lower retirement age, which the PO government had gradually pushed back to 67 years.

He also promised to better defend Poland’s interests abroad: “We need to ensure a cohesive European Union but in such a way that while doing so our interests are also taken into consideration.”

Duda had earlier said he opposes Poland’s entry into the eurozone “so long as the standard of living of Poles remains below that of Germans or the Dutch”.

Like Poland’s powerful Catholic Church, he also opposes in-vitro fertilisation and came down hard on the 2011 Istanbul Convention, the world’s first binding legal instrument to prevent and combat violence against women, which Poland ratified this year.

Born in 1972 to professor parents in the southern city of Krakow, Duda was a choir boy and Boy Scout in his early years before earning a law degree from the Jagiellonian University.

When PiS came into power in 2005, he was named deputy justice minister, a job he gave up in 2008 to become an aide to Lech Kaczynski. He was elected to the Polish parliament in 2011, then to the European Parliament last year.

But he was not well-known before Jaroslaw Kaczynski anointed him as presidential candidate.

An avid skier, Duda is married to Agata, a high-school German teacher. The couple has one daughter, law student Kinga.

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