WARSAW Poles will choose between two conservative candidates with contrasting views on market reforms, the euro currency and Poland's place in the European Union in Sunday's presidential election run-off.
Bronislaw Komorowski of the centrist ruling party, Civic Platform (PO), is tipped to win but faces a stiff challenge from rightist opposition leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, twin brother of President Lech Kaczynski who died in a plane crash in April.
In Poland, the EU's largest ex-communist member state, the government led by the prime minister sets policy but the president can propose and veto laws, appoints many officials and has a say in foreign and security policy.
Komorowski, 58, and his patron Prime Minister Donald Tusk depict Kaczynski as a reckless populist who would use his veto as president to block reforms needed to bolster the economy and avert the kind of crisis now engulfing some EU countries.
Kaczynski, 61, and his supporters accuse PO of selling off the "family silver" to foreign investors and of neglecting poorer Poles left behind by the country's 20-year transformation from a socialist command economy into a capitalist powerhouse.
For Tusk, the stakes in this election could not be higher.
"Jaroslaw Kaczynski as a president would be a worse version of Lech Kaczynski, and even under Lech it was not easy," said Tusk in an interview for the weekly Polityka magazine.
WAR OR PEACE?
"The confrontation visible between Lech Kaczynski and the government would then be greatly increased because of Jaroslaw's temper and determination... Now we face either five years of peace or five years of war. The choice will be made on July 4."
Lech Kaczynski irked Tusk's government by vetoing its health, pension and media bills. He and Jaroslaw also hampered government plans to push for early adoption of the euro.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski served as prime minister at the head of a right-wing coalition in 2006-07 that upset judges, the media and business executives with populist campaigns against graft and also strained Poland's ties with Germany, Russia and the EU.
But he has struck a conciliatory tone in the election campaign in a drive to win over middle-of-the-road voters.
Even if Komorowski wins, few expect Tusk to launch promised fiscal reforms before a 2011 parliamentary election.
"Will the government deliver (if Komorowski wins)? The chances are not great because we have an unsupportive political cycle, with local and then parliamentary elections looming," said Michal Dybula, chief economist at BNP Paribas bank.
"But a Kaczynski win would obviously mean a more confrontational president, so the chances of the government then delivering on necessary fiscal measures would be virtually nil, and nil for some time to come. Bonds and the zloty would fall."
Poland was the only economy in the 27-strong EU to avoid recession last year but growth slowed sharply to 1.8 percent from 5 percent in 2008 and lower tax revenues drove the budget deficit up to about 7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), more than twice the EU's ceiling for euro aspirants.
Public debt, though much lower than in most west European countries, is nearing the 55 percent of GDP threshold which would, under Polish law, trigger deep spending cuts the government wants to avoid ahead of the elections.
Both Komorowski and Kaczynski emerged from the pro-democracy Solidarity movement that toppled communism in 1989 but they represent very different brands of conservatism.
Komorowski, a pro-EU, market-oriented moderate, has the backing of much of the political and business establishment, including ex-presidents Lech Walesa and Aleksander Kwasniewski. As speaker of parliament, he became Poland's acting president on Lech Kaczynski's death.
Kaczynski stresses traditional Catholic moral values, wants greater state spending and in foreign policy emphasizes Poland's security ties with the United States over closer EU integration. He is in no hurry to swap zlotys for euros.
"If we had pushed for the euro as the government wanted, we would today be in an economic catastrophe," he said in a live televised debate with Komorowski on Wednesday, noting that a free floating zloty had helped Poland weather the global crisis.
Kaczynski accuses Tusk and Komorowski of plotting to privatize the creaking state health service.
Komorowski led Kaczynski by five percentage points in the first round of voting on June 20. Opinion polls show that widening to as much as 13 percentage points on Sunday, but they have often underestimated Kaczynski's support.
PO is haunted by the memory of how Lech Kaczynski defied the polls in the last presidential election in 2005 to rob frontrunner Tusk, then the party's candidate, of victory.
(Editing by Janet Lawrence)