(photo credit: )
Tough-talking Warsaw Mayor Lech Kaczynski won Poland's presidential runoff Sunday, early returns showed, coming from behind after convincing older and poorer voters with his calls to keep the social safety net in a conservative government.
With 30 percent of votes counted, Kaczynski led rival Donald Tusk 54.9% to 46.1%.
An exit poll for Polish public television showed him winning by 53.7% to 46.3% over pro-market legislator Tusk from the Civic Platform party, and Tusk conceded defeat.
"Today I must tell myself I did not make it," Tusk told glum supporters at his election headquarters.
During the campaign, Kaczynski vowed to root out former communists and fight political corruption, but sounded a conciliatory note as he claimed victory.
He urged Tusk's party, Civic Platform, to finish work on a coalition government with his Law and Justice Party, headed by his twin brother, Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
"Poland needs wrongs to be accounted for, but even more Poland needs accord. I want to reinstate that accord," Kaczynski said. "I want to now address my friends in Platform to ask them to quickly complete work on a new government."
Kaczynski trailed Tusk 33% to 36% in the first round two weeks ago. But voters listened to his warnings that free-market policies must not cut social welfare for the less fortunate.
Tusk won in the most prosperous, western regions of the country, while Kaczynski swept the poorer east, exit polls showed.
The mild-mannered Tusk made some wonder whether he was tough enough to be president, in contrast with the aggressive Kaczynski, a populist who tried to stop a gay rights parade and issued Germany a bill for damage done in World War II.
In the last week of the campaign, Kaczynski won a key endorsement from anti-European Union populist Andrzej Lepper of the left-wing Self-Defense party. Lepper was eliminated with only 15% of the vote, but surveys showed that more than 80% of his supporters' votes went to Kaczynski.
Kaczynski's promises to stand up to Germany - even though the two countries enjoy good relations - appeared aimed at old voters who remember the war. His promises to keep pensions and social benefits apparently helped him win voters over 60 by a 61-39% margin, exit polls for TVN24 showed.
"He thinks about poor people, about retired people and children, and we are retired, that's why we voted for him," said Danuta Niemkowska, a 71-year-old retired teacher, after she and her husband voted at a school in Warsaw's riverside district.
Both candidates are right of center, but Tusk is more oriented toward market economics and favors a flat tax. Kaczynski wants tax cuts, but prefers the system under which high earners pay more and proposes tax breaks for those with large families. His campaign also stressed Roman Catholic stands such as opposition to abortion and gay rights.
The two Kaczynski brothers, both former activists in the Solidarity trade union movement, won fame as child stars in a hit film, "Two Who Stole The Moon." But their resemblance became a political handicap, pushing Jaroslaw to abandon his claim to become prime minister in favor of little known party official Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz.
Kaczynski said he would leave Law and Justice; although there is no requirement that he do so, the president is regarded as above day-to-day politics, and outgoing President Aleksander Kwasniewski quit his party after being elected.
Kwasniewski, a former communist popular for his easy style, has served his maximum of two terms and could not run again.