Polish Prime Minister Marek Belka has lost a parliamentary vote of confidence late Friday, less than two weeks after he was appointed to the post. There are fears that the biggest new member of the European Union from the former Soviet bloc may now be heading towards early elections.

The lower House of Polish parliament voted 262 to 188 against Mr. Marek Belka after a long debate over his proposed economic reforms. It came as a major set back for the 51-year-old former finance minister, who replaced his unpopular predecessor Leszek Miller on May 2.

Before the vote, Mr. Belka asked lawmakers to give him a "one-year contract" until new elections in 2005 to pursue economic changes and the mission in Iraq, which has received broad support in Poland.

Before becoming Prime Minister, Mr. Belka was in charge of economic policy in Iraq for the U.S.-led provisional authority.

But opposition members charged that Mr Belka's governing Democratic Left Alliance has lost its popular support since Mr. Miller's resignation following a series of corruption scandals. The parliament now has 14 days to find another candidate to replace Mr. Belka who was asked to stay on in a caretaker capacity by President Aleksander Kwasnieski.

But the President has already indicated that he will reappoint Mr. Belka for the prime ministership. This gives new hope for Mr. Belka because he needs only a simple majority in the next round of vote by the parliament.

If this fails, Mr. Kwasniewski has a final chance to present a candidate before he is required to dissolve parliament and call early elections.

Opposition parties hope an early ballot could benefit them as voter support for the ruling party has reportedly dropped to just around eight percent.

There is also widespread anger over social difficulties, including the 20 percent unemployment rate.

But some opinion polls suggest that most people want Mr. Belka to stay on as a bipartisan prime minister because they believe the former economics professor could lead the country out of current economic crisis.

Poland is one of 10 mainly former Communist countries that became a member of the European Union earlier this month.