WARSAW Poles choose a new president on Sunday in an election run-off that will help decide the speed and scale of economic reforms and set the tone for Warsaw's ties with its European Union partners and with Russia.
Billed as Poland's strangest election since the fall of communism in 1989, it was called after the death of President Lech Kaczynski and many other top officials in a plane crash in Russia on April 10.
The election pits Kaczynski's twin brother Jaroslaw, the combative eurosceptic leader of the main right-wing opposition party, against Bronislaw Komorowski, candidate of Poland's ruling pro-business Civic Platform (PO).
Opinion polls have mostly predicted a Komorowski victory but usually underestimate the amount of support for Kaczynski, who has been narrowing the gap in recent weeks and lagged by just five percentage points in a first round of voting on June 20.
A final slew of polls published on Friday, the last day of campaigning, showed the candidates either at level pegging or Komorowski with a small lead.
Financial markets favor a Komorowski presidency, expecting him to work smoothly with Prime Minister Donald Tusk's market-oriented government as it tries to rein in a big budget deficit while keeping a fragile economic recovery on track.
"Only cooperation can guarantee that money will be spent rationally, only cooperation can guarantee that Poland will take the path of development," Komorowski said on Friday.
In Poland, the government led by the prime minister sets policy, but the president can propose and veto laws, appoints many key officials and has a say in foreign and security policy.
Investors fear that Kaczynski, who opposes cuts in public spending and privatization, would use his presidential veto to block reforms, just as his brother Lech did before his death.
Economists say the zloty and government bonds would weaken, though not too sharply, in the event of a Kaczynski victory.
However, Kaczynski, known in the past for his acerbic nationalist rhetoric, has struck a conciliatory tone on the campaign trail in a bid to win over middle-of-the-road voters.
"As president I would want to convince people to cooperate for the common good, for the development of Poland," he said during a final swing on Friday through rural Poland, heartland of his conservative, often deeply Catholic supporters.
Polling stations are open from 6 a.m. (12 a.m. EDT) till 8 p.m. (2 p.m. EDT). Exit polls showing the final estimated results will be published as soon as voting ends.
Around 30 million Poles in a total population of 38 million are eligible to vote. Turnout in the first round was 54 percent.
The Komorowski camp fears that the timing of the election, in mid-summer, combined with unusually hot weather, will play to Kaczynski's advantage as its generally younger, wealthier electors are more likely to take holidays and fail to vote.
A Kaczynski victory would crown a remarkable comeback for a politician who before his brother's fatal crash had been looking increasingly weak and marginalized, his party lagging well behind Tusk's pro-business, pro-euro PO.
Kaczynski, a bachelor, benefited from an upsurge of public sympathy after the crash. The flag above the presidential palace is still flying at half-mast before the arrival of a new head of state.
Komorowski, a mustachioed, bespectacled father of five, hopes the government's success in averting recession in Poland during the global economic crisis -- the only country in the 27-strong EU to do so -- will help propel him into the top job.
(Editing by Ralph Boulton)