Poles voted Sunday in a presidential runoff between pro-market lawmaker Donald Tusk and Warsaw's socially conservative mayor Lech Kaczynski, with opinion surveys showing Kaczynski making the race close with his promises to keep the social safety net.
Tusk, who favors more market economics and a flat tax, has seen a 12-point lead dwindle against Kaczynski, who gained from a late endorsement from a defeated rival and from promises to protect the less fortunate amid high unemployment.
"I voted for Kaczynski because I think he has a good agenda, something that appeals to me," said businessman Bogdan Sobczak, the first to vote shortly after 6 a.m. (0400 GMT) at a school in central Warsaw.
Jadwiga Swirtun, 70, said Tusk's character appealed to her. "I voted for Tusk because I think he's a sensitive and responsible person, someone who would care more for others than himself."
The race has also turned on personalities, with the mild-mannered Tusk saying he wants to play a unifying role, while the more aggressive Kaczynski has talked tough about standing up to Russia and Germany and purging former communists from positions of influence. He has also stressed traditional Roman Catholic values such as opposition to gay rights and abortion.
A survey published by the TNS OBOP agency Friday showed that 50.9 percent supported Tusk, and 49.1 percent wanted Kaczynski. The institute, which questioned 1,510 people Tuesday and Wednesday, gave a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.
Kaczynski trailed Tusk in the first round two weeks ago and lagged in polls immediately afterward, but has been helped by an endorsement from populist anti-EU candidate Andrzej Lepper, one of those eliminated. Kaczynski faces skepticism from some voters because his identical twin brother, Jaroslaw, heads the Law and Justice party, which won parliamentary elections Sept. 25; some have said they don't want one family to hold too much power.
The winner will replace outgoing President Aleksander Kwasniewski, a popular ex-communist who has served the maximum two terms allowed by law.
The race in the formerly communist country has focused on the Europe-wide issue of how far to go in giving up welfare state protections for the promise of a competitive American-style economy with fewer social benefits but faster growth and job creation.
Tusk, head of the Civic Platform party, wants a 15-percent flat tax rate on personal and corporate earnings, while Kaczynski, from Law and Justice, favors a greater role for the state in the economy. He wants tax cuts, but would maintain a system under which high earners pay more and large families enjoy deductions.
The president is commander in chief of the armed forces, can suggest and veto laws and represents Poland abroad. The new president will also deal with whether to stick by the current plan to pull Polish troops out of Iraq early next year, although that issue has played little role in the campaign.
The election of either candidate will cement the sharp decline of the ruling former communists, who were defeated in parliamentary elections on Sept. 25 following a string of sleaze scandals and failure to slash Poland's jobless rate, which at 18 percent is the highest in the EU.
The Kaczynski brothers' Law and Justice party took most votes, and is now in coalition talks with Tusk's Civic Platform _ which came second _ to form a government. Sunday's winner is expected to strengthen his party's hand within a future coalition because the president has the power to veto laws, AP reported. V.A.