Poles choose a new president today in a run-off that pits a free marketeer hoping to close the gap between Poland and its EU partners and a conservative looking to restore welfare protection hurt since communism fell.

The election, which completes Poland's swing to the right after four years of social democrat governments and two terms by outgoing leftist President Aleksander Kwasniewski, is close run, with both candidates neck and neck in opinion polls.

Pro-business moderate Donald Tusk and conservative Lech Kaczynski beat 10 other candidates in the first round on October 9 after their parties, Civic Platform and Law and Justice, crushed the sleaze-ridden leftists in last month's general election.

Voting starts at 6 a.m. today, with first exit polls expected shortly after polling stations close at 8 p.m.

Soft-spoken Tusk, 48, paints himself as a force of modernisation that can unite Poles, mend rocky relations with big neighbours Germany and Russia, and anchor the nation of 38 million in the European mainstream.

Backed by Poland's emerging middle class, Tusk seeks tax cuts and reforms to rejuvenate central Europe's largest economy, burdened by 18 per cent unemployment - the highest in the EU.

Kaczynski, 56, promises a clear break from post-communist Poland under the banner of the "Fourth Republic", "moral renewal" and a return to Christian values.

Mildly Eurosceptic, the tough-on-crime Warsaw mayor wooed populist voters by pledging to protect the elderly, farmers and heavy industry workers from Tusk's "liberal experiments".

Whoever wins will be commander in chief and have a voice in foreign policy. The president can propose and veto legislation, nominate prime ministers - who hold the bulk of executive power - and, in some circumstances, dissolve parliament.

Today's result will also tip the balance in the prob-able centre-right government between the two candidates' parties. The government is due to be formed after the presidential campaign fervour dies out.

The rough campaign turned two long-time allies into rivals, with Tusk highlighting his moderate, pro-European image to attract the mainstream left, and Kaczynski reaching out to both far-left and religious right voters.

But for some Poles, angry at the ex-communist left for blatant corruption, either Solidarity veteran would do just fine.

"If it were possible I would like one to be president and the other vice-president. Both candidates are worthy," Jerzy Preisner, owner of a carpentry shop, said.

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