If Aleksander Kwasniewski's lead in the Polish election is confirmed by complete final results, the outcome will be a humiliating defeat for the man who did more than any other to bring Polish Communism to its knees. A defeat for the former Solidarity leader, Lech Walesa, would also reflect a trend of social democrat victories in eastern Europe.
Final official results were not due until this evening, but the first results putting the 41-year-old Mr Kwasniewski ahead by 51.4 per cent to 48.6 per cent were greeted with grim silence at Mr Walesa's Warsaw election headquarters.
Whatever the final result, Mr Kwasniewski's supporters were overjoyed at the surprisingly strong showing of their candidate. "This is an unprecedented victory," said a spokesman for his SLD party. Mr Walesa, who had predicted victory, thanked all those who had trusted and believed in him.
The closeness of the contest underlined the deep divisions in Poland more than six years after the end of the Communist regime. Spokesmen across the political spectrum called on whoever became President to seek to end the division. "Whoever wins has the task of representing the 50 per cent who did not vote for him," said Adam Michnik, editor of the Gazeta Wyborcza. "The future of Poland will either be decided in a spirit of tolerance or we could witness the progressive polarisation of the country."
For many, the election was a re-run of the 1980s battle between Poland's Communist rulers and the Walesa-led Solidarity movement that brought them down. Reactivation of the Solidarity-Communism divide had appeared to play into the hands of Mr Walesa, whose performance over the past five years has been criticised by both political enemies and former allies.
Mr Kwasniewski, a junior minister in the last truly Communist government, says it has been a false debate, diverting attention from the really important questions about future.
Mr Kwasniewski gained considerable support from many Poles too young to remember life under Communism who were attracted by his good looks, quick wit and slick campaigning style. "Mr Kwasniewski is clearly the better of the two," Pawel Chmielewski, 19, said after voting. "He may have his roots in Communism but I think we have to believe him when he says he will not repeat the mistakes of the past. It is clear that there can never be a return to Communism."
For all the antagonism between the two candidates, there are no fundamental differences in their policy goals. Both support Polish membership of Nato and the EU and are in favour of further market reforms.
In the first round of the election two weeks ago, Mr Kwasniewski secured 35 per cent of the vote, narrowly ahead of Mr Walesa on 33 per cent.