WARSAW Poles voted on Sunday for a successor to President Lech Kaczynski in an election that will shape the pace of economic reforms and set the tone for Warsaw's relations with its EU partners and historic foe Russia.
Billed as the strangest election in Poland's 21-year post-communist history, it was called after the death of Lech Kaczynski and 95 other people, including senior political and military officials, in a plane crash in Russia on April 10.
The two frontrunners, both Catholic conservatives espousing family values but divided on many other issues, are far ahead of the other eight candidates in opinion polls. The winner will serve a five-year term as head of state.
Kaczynski's twin brother Jaroslaw, a combative Eurosceptic, has fought a campaign based on calls for solidarity at a time of national disaster, but Bronislaw Komorowski of the ruling centrist party Civic Platform (PO) looks set to win.
Many Poles fear political deadlock if Kaczynski, a harsh critic of the government, were elected and say Komorowski would be a more moderate, less confrontational head of state.
"I voted for Komorowski because he is not dividing society. He does not dwell on history but looks to the future and is concerned about the economy, unemployment and he wants to develop Poland's foreign relations," Michal Nadratowski, a 34 year-old gym instructor, told Reuters as he voted in Warsaw.
Komorowski is unlikely to secure the 50 percent of votes he needs to win on Sunday, however, forcing a run-off on July 4.
Polling stations close at 8 p.m. (1800 GMT) and exit polls showing the final estimated results will then be published.
PRESIDENT CAN VETO LAWS
About 30 million Poles out of a population of 38 million are eligible to vote. The State Election Commission said turnout stood at 23 percent by 1 pm (1100 GMT). In the 2005 presidential election, won by Lech Kaczynski, final turnout was 50 percent.
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 angered Prime Minister Donald Tusk's economically liberal government by blocking some reforms.
Tusk believes Jaroslaw Kaczynski as president would continue his brother's habit of vetoing government bills and of thwarting efforts to prepare Poland for adopting the euro currency.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski served as prime minister briefly from 2006 to 2007, when his nationalist views, in particular his deep suspicion of Germany and Russia, put severe strain on Poland's relations with its neighbours and also with the European Union.
By contrast, Komorowski, a father of five and scion of the old Polish aristocracy, shares Tusk's ambition to bring Poland into the European political mainstream, a goal that includes adopting the euro as soon as is economically feasible.
Komorowski, as speaker of parliament, became Poland's acting president on Lech Kaczynski's death.
The crash triggered an upsurge of sympathy for Jaroslaw, a bachelor who was close to his brother. This factor, and an image makeover that has seen him tone down his often harsh rhetoric, has helped him to narrow the gap with Komorowski.
Some voters said they backed Kaczynski because they saw him as the champion of ordinary Poles against powerful elites.
"Kaczynski is the only choice ... He is for patriotism, culture and solidarity, not just big business," said Maria Derkacz, 63, a translator.
Authorities laid on special transport for people in some regions of Poland badly affected by floods following heavy spring rains, but few seemed to be taking advantage of the help.
"The half an hour or so it would take me to go and vote are the equivalent of dozens of buckets of mud and slime I can remove from my house," one resident told TVN24 television.
The floods in May and early June killed 20 people, forced the evacuation of tens of thousands and caused billions of zlotys' worth of damage in southern and central Poland.
(Writing by Gareth Jones, editing by David Stamp)