Walesa set to retain office

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Lech Walesa last night emerged as the clear favourite in Poland's presidential election after a strong performance in the first round of voting.

On the basis of early exit polls, Mr Walesa, the incumbent, looked set to win some 33.2 per cent of the vote, narrowly behind his main rival, Aleksander Kwasniewski, a former Communist sports minister, on 34 per cent. None of the other 11 candidates was set to win more than 10 per cent, leaving the two front-runners to contest the second round in two weeks' time.

Although Mr Kwasniewski appeared to have a slight lead, Mr Walesa is expected to overtake him in the second round. Certainly the mood in the Walesa camp was upbeat last night. As the result became clear, his supporters cheered and burst into the national anthem. Mr Kwasniewski's campaign managers insisted they were pleased with the result and predicted a close race.

The results confirmed that most Poles view this election as a contest between the heirs of the old Communist regime, as represented by Mr Kwasniewski, and those of the Solidarity movement that toppled it, as represented by Mr Walesa.

The President, whose chances of victory appeared slim until September, has campaigned on a "stop the Reds" ticket, arguing that Mr Kwasniewski and his Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) party already hold too much power in the country.

Mr Kwasniewski, who now calls himself a social democrat, rejects charges of being a Communist. Casting his vote in Warsaw, Mr Kwasniewski said: "Communism is a thing of the past. There is no sense in its coming back ... Poland has moved on. We are successfully building democracy and the free market and whoever is elected president should defend these successes."