WARSAW Poles will choose a successor to their late president Lech Kaczynski on Sunday in an election haunted by the twin tragedies of the plane crash that killed him and the worst floods to hit the country in more than a decade.
The two frontrunners are both conservative Catholics and veterans of the Solidarity movement that overthrew communism in 1989, but they differ sharply in style and in their views on the euro currency, market reforms, and Poland's place in Europe and the world.
All opinion polls have shown Bronislaw Komorowski of the governing party, the pro-business Civic Platform (PO), winning the race, but Kaczynski's twin brother Jaroslaw, a combative eurosceptic, has narrowed the gap thanks to a shrewd campaign based on appeals for solidarity at a time of national disasters.
Komorowski is unlikely to top the 50 percent threshold he needs to win outright, polls show, forcing a runoff on July 4. The other eight candidates are trailing far behind the main two.
"The wind is certainly on Kaczynski's side, partly because he is fighting to preserve his brother's legacy, partly because he is really fighting to save his political project," said Pawel Swieboda, head of the DemosEuropa think-tank.
"He and his Law and Justice (PiS) party have a nationalist, pre-modern vision of conservatism and the clock is ticking on that kind of movement as the country is undergoing very rapid modernisation and change, so this may be the last chance for PiS... to steer the country in the direction they want."
In Poland, the government sets policy but the president can veto laws, appoints many key officials and has a say in foreign and security policy. Lech Kaczynski irked Prime Minister Donald Tusk's economically liberal government by blocking some reforms.
KACZYNSKI'S CHARM OFFENSIVE
Jaroslaw Kaczynski's core supporters are older, rural-based and devoutly Catholic, while Komorowski, 58, and Tusk's PO are stronger among younger, urban voters.
But the big surprise of a mostly subdued and lacklustre election campaign has been Kaczynski's drive to win centrist voters. He has projected a conciliatory image and resisted PO efforts to provoke him into the kind of acerbic remarks that helped define his spell as prime minister in 2006-07.
"For now, Jaroslaw is not obliging (PO) and is playing the kindly old duffer who wants to use this national tragedy (of the crash) to overcome old animosities and unite the nation," said Preston Keat of Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy.
"His granny style reading-glasses soften his image nicely, too," Keat wrote in an analytical note this week.
Kaczynski, who turns 61 on Friday, has benefited from an upsurge of sympathy among Poles for his family after the April 10 crash in Russia which also killed much of Poland's political and military elite ash. The Kaczynski twins had been very close.
Like Komorowski, Kaczynski has also spent much of the election campaign visiting victims of spring floods that killed 20 people, forced the evacuation of tens of thousands more from their homes and caused billions of zlotys worth of damage.
Tusk, who lost to Lech Kaczynski in the 2005 presidential race, believes Jaroslaw as president would continue his brother's tradition of vetoing government bills. The presidential palace would also become a campaign headquarters for PiS ahead of next year's crucial parliamentary election.
"A win for Jaroslaw Kaczynski would be political hell," Tusk said recently, arguing that underneath the cuddlier image the former prime minister remained the same old nationalist whose suspicion of Russia, Germany and the EU once harmed Poland's interests.
"(Backing Kaczynski) are legions of people PiS controls whose task is to prove Tusk works not only for (Germany's) Wehrmacht but also for the (Soviet) Red Army and that Komorowski is a lackey of the great powers led by Russia," said Tusk.
Komorowski, a father of five and scion of the old Polish aristocracy, would work smoothly with the Tusk government if elected, though the campaign has exposed his lack of charisma.
Komorowski has also had to juggle the demands of election campaigning with his other duties as speaker of parliament and Poland's acting president. He automatically became interim head of state on Lech Kaczynski's death in his capacity as speaker.
PO hopes Poland's relatively strong economic performance during the global financial crisis will boost support for its candidate. The EU's largest ex-communist economy was the only one in the 27-strong bloc to avoid recession last year.
(Editing by Jon Boyle)