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SLUG: 2-304103 Poland/Referendum (L-O)









INTRO: Two days of voting has begun in Poland on whether the country should join the European Union next year with nine other mainly former Communist nations. But as Stefan Bos reports from Budapest, there is concern that a low turnout could invalidate the referendum.

TEXT: The polls in Poland opened early Saturday in keeping with the government's desire to make sure no one who is eligible to vote has an excuse to stay away from what newspapers described as an "historic opportunity." The voting will continue through Sunday.

Although research shows that most of those planning to participate in the two-day ballot support European Union membership, there is concern that the overall turnout will be below the required 50 percent plus one voter to make the referendum valid.

The apparent lack of enthusiasm among the electorate has been linked to widespread apathy and anger over high unemployment and corruption scandals that have rocked the leftist government.

Even the Polish-born Pope John Paul the Second took the time to urge the mainly Roman Catholic nation of nearly 40 million people to support E-U membership because, as he put it, Europe needs the Polish church.

The Vatican also appears to hope that Poland will use its clout as the largest of the 10 candidate countries to influence a debate on the E-U constitution, amid church concern that it will make no reference to Christianity.

The voter turnout in Poland is being closely monitored in the Czech Republic where a referendum on entry into the European Union is scheduled to be held later this month.

Latvia and Estonia will hold similar votes in September. Cyprus is the only country among the 10 candidate nations not holding a referendum on the issue.

As he voted on a sunny Saturday morning in Warsaw, Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller described the referendum as "one of the biggest days in Polish history."

He said he hoped Poles would, in his words, "choose the best path for Poland and for the future of all" after decades of Communist rule.

If Poland says "yes" to membership, the stage is set for what would be the E-U's biggest single step ever across the old Cold War divide in its expansion eastward.

Prosperous city dwellers and some bishops are among the staunchest supporters of Poland's entry into the EU. But others, such as poor farmers as well as workers of nearly bankrupt state-owned companies, express concern that membership will worsen their situation and that Poland itself will be ruled from afar, by Brussels. (Signed)


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