WARSAW, Poland Poland's election today could bring to power a party that favors a quicker end to the country's military mission in Iraq and tougher bargaining over hosting a U.S. missile defense base while still promising to remain a strong American ally.
Polls give an edge to the pro-business Civic Platform party over Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski's conservative Law and Justice party going into the balloting for a new parliament.
Both favor a strong alliance with Washington, but Civic Platform shows signs it may be more inclined to push for getting more for its friendship with the United States.
Since taking power in fall 2005, Kaczynski's government has twice extended the Polish mission in Iraq, beefed up its force in Afghanistan to more than 1,000 soldiers and voiced strong support for hosting the U.S. anti-missile base despite fierce objections from Russia.
The government extended the Iraq mission last year until the end of this year, but Kaczynski has suggested it could be extended for yet another 12 months, saying Poles "have never been deserters."
Civic Platform, in contrast, has called for bringing home Poland's 900 soldiers in Iraq, though some party officials have said that could take as long as until the end of 2008. The party also says Poland should get more from the United States in return for a missile base deal.
In a televised debate last week, Civic Platform leader Donald Tusk suggested Poland is getting little in return for its coziness with Washington, pointing in particular to the fact that Poles' long-sought visa-free travel to the United States has not materialized.
"You say we've gained a lot from our ties with the U.S.," Tusk told Kaczynski. "But you don't name a thing. Where are the visas, where are the business deals?"
Pawel Swieboda, director of the Warsaw-based demosEuropa research institute, said Tusk's party would present a new, more assertive face to the U.S. government, seeking to demonstrate to Poles that it is more effective than Law and Justice.
"Civic Platform is going to want, in a way, to redefine ties with the United States and present Washington with a list of Poland's expectations for those relations, especially regarding missile defense and forces in Iraq," he said.
Swieboda said Civic Platform is open to have the missile base but will push for "a more attractive offer."
Polish and American officials wrapped up a fourth round of talks earlier this month on Poland hosting 10 interceptor missiles as part of a defense shield that the United States says is intended to guard against possible missile attacks by Iran and other so-called "rogue" states.
The system, which would include a radar station in neighboring Czech Republic, has angered Russia, which sees the defense shield as a threat to the region's military balance. Poland's enthusiasm for the project has further strained its already tense relations with Moscow.
Civic Platform says it supports hosting the base, but it has criticized Kaczynski for being too eager for a deal.
Some in Civic Platform want to use the bargaining to get the United States to provide Poland with the Patriot short-range and anti-aircraft missile system.
"Poland must have a security guarantee tied to basing a missile shield on its soil," said Slawomir Nowak, a leading Civic Platform lawmaker. "I'm talking about a missile defense system against short-range missiles, such as Patriot missiles."
Still, Civic Platform assures that Poland would keep tight ties with the United States if it forms the next government.
"We will pursue very friendly ties with the United States," Nowak said. "The U.S. is our greatest ally, our biggest partner, biggest friend, and will remain all those things. We count and depend on our strategic relationship with the U.S."