Poles braved wind and snow yesterday to vote in a presidential election that has underlined the extent to which the country remains divided six years after Communism collapsed.
An early exit poll showed President Lech Walesa and Aleksander Kwasniewski, his challenger, running close, with 50.35 per cent backing Mr Walesa, against 49.65 per cent for the Social Democrat Mr Kwasniewski. For many, the election represented a re-run of the battle between Poland's Communist rulers and the Walesa-led Solidarity movement that brought it down.
"I am voting for Mr Walesa because I do not want the Reds to come back into power," said Zdzislaw Skomialow outside his polling station in Warsaw. "Even if it meant going barefoot with Walesa as president I would willingly do it. He deserves praise for having got rid of the enemy after 40 years."
The reopening of the Solidarity-Communism divide has favoured Mr Walesa, whose performance over the past five years has been criticised by both enemies and former allies.
According to Mr Kwasniewski, a junior minister in the last truly Communist government, it has been a false debate, distracting attention from the really important questions about Poland's future.
In addition to SLD stalwarts, Mr Kwasniewski looked set to gain support from Poles too young to remember life under Communism and who were attracted by his good looks, quick wit and slick campaigning style.
"Mr Kwasniewski is clearly the better of the two," said Pawel Chmielewski, 19. "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 their antagonism, there are no fundamental differences in the candidates' policy goals.
Both support membership of Nato and the European Union and both declare themselves to be in favour of further market reforms. In the first round of the election two weeks ago, Mr Kwasniewski outvoted Mr Walesa by 35 per cent to 33 per cent. The remaining votes went to 11 other candidates, who then dropped out of the race.
With some opinion polls yesterday predicting a win for Mr Kwasniewski, the Catholic Church leapt into the fray. Priests urged believers to vote for the candidate they believed to be "closer to God", a veiled reference to Mr Walesa, a devout Catholic and father of eight.
Poland's Primate, Cardinal Jozef Glemp, called the election "a choice between two people and two value-systems: a set of Christian values and a system that I would call neo-pagan".