WARSAW, Poland – Poles chose a new president Sunday in a race that asked voters in the ex-communist country to grapple with the Europe-wide issue of just how far to go in sacrificing old welfare state protections for the promise of an American-style economy with fast growth and job creation.
An exit poll by state television indicated that Donald Tusk (search), a pro-business candidate committed to stimulating entrepreneurship with low taxes and deregulation, was leading Lech Kaczynski (search), a former child actor hoping to preserve a strong safety net and Roman Catholic values in the homeland of the late Pope John Paul II.
However, Tusk had not received the required 50 percent of the vote necessary to avoid a runoff. The exit poll said Tusk received 38 percent and Kaczynski 32 percent.
If no candidate gets 50 percent, the runoff will be Oct. 23.
"This is a victory," a smiling Tusk proclaimed from a platform set up at the National Museum (search), where members of his Civic Platform party gathered. "I'm happy that millions of Poles decided it was worth going to vote, and that it was worth voting for Donald Tusk."
Turnout was 50.5 percent, according to state TV.
The two front-runners barely discussed the outgoing government's plan to pull Polish troops out of Iraq by early next year, though their parties suggested the force could stay longer — provided the country can renegotiate terms of the deployment with Washington. The deployment of about 1,500 troops is deeply unpopular in Poland.
While the prime minister and his government wield most executive power in Poland, the president is commander in chief of the armed forces, can veto laws and direct foreign policy by representing Poland abroad.
Both Tusk and Kaczynski have their political roots in the anti-communist Solidarity movement of the 1980s and have pledged to fight corruption and the continued influence in politics of former communists.
Though 12 candidates were in the running, opinion polls showed only Tusk or Kaczynski with a shot at victory, meaning the outcome was certain to reinforce the decline of the former communists, who were soundly defeated in parliamentary elections two weeks earlier.
The election comes at a time of transition for the central European country of 38 million, the largest of the former Soviet bloc states to join the European Union last year. Sunday's vote, along with a parliamentary election Sept. 25, pushed Poles to discuss how much capitalist-style reform they can stomach.
Though the parliamentary vote gave a combined victory to Tusk's Civic Platform party and Kaczynski's Law and Justice, Kaczynski's party has the slight edge. The result has caused widespread anxiety sparked by talk of dismantling the welfare state in a country with the highest official jobless rate in Europe, now nearly 18 percent. Many depend on some form of a government handout, paltry though it might be.
The parties are now in coalition talks to form a government, but these have been hampered by rivalry in the presidential race.
Both candidates can be expected to continue a strong pro-U.S. stance. And as relations have worsened with Russia lately, Poland's need for Washington's support has grown even more important, political analysts say.
A feeling of upheaval has also been thrust upon the nation by the April 2 death of John Paul II, the beloved native son who long served as the moral example for the country.
Kaczynski has stressed that he wants to keep the country's Roman Catholic values reflected in the law, for instance by preserving the strict anti-abortion laws and preventing gay marriages.
That stance has led some Catholic leaders to endorse him in past weeks as he erased much of Tusk's lead in the polls. One fringe group went as far as to distribute leaflets saying that to vote for Tusk was to "flagellate Christ."
The winner of the presidential race will replace Aleksander Kwasniewski, a former communist whose second and final five-year term is coming to a close. Kwasniewski, sometimes called the "Polish Bill Clinton" for his relaxed manner, has remained popular despite a string of sleaze scandals that has battered the left.