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Poland Holds Referendum to Decide on EU Membership - 2003-06-06

Polish voters are set to vote in a referendum Saturday and Sunday on whether to join the European Union. There are concerns that a low turnout could make the crucial ballot invalid.

The latest research indicates that four out of five people planning to vote in Poland's two-day referendum support European Union membership. But there is a problem.

At least half of Poland's nearly 30 million voters must go to the polls to make the referendum valid.

There are fears that many people will stay home because of anger over high unemployment and corruption scandals that have hurt the government's popularity.

If most Polish voters boycott the poll, Parliament can still ratify EU entry by a two-thirds majority. But commentators say a lack of strong public support could put financial markets on edge and might even bring down Prime Minister Leszek Miller's government.

Several world leaders, including German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and British Prime Minister Tony Blair flew to Warsaw in recent days to urge people to get out and vote.

Mr. Schroeder told Polish voters this week that "Poland doesn't just need Europe, but that Europe needs Poland." Even Polish-born Pope John Paul II has urged voters in the mainly Catholic nation not to miss this historic opportunity.

Officials and analysts say the success of EU enlargement hangs on Poland, whose nearly 40 million people outnumber the combined population of the nine other countries scheduled to join next May.

Poland is not the only former Communist country where an EU referendum might not inspire massive participation by eligible voters. The recent ballot on union membership in Hungary drew about 46 per cent of voters and in Slovakia the referendum attracted about 52 percent.

Polling stations in Poland are due to be open for 14 hours on both Saturday and Sunday, with initial results expected Sunday night.