WARSAW, Poland -- Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk appeared to clinch a second term in office for his centrist, pro-European Civic Platform party in parliamentary elections Sunday, a historic first in the country's post-communist era.
One exit poll gave Tusk's party nearly 40 percent support, well ahead of its main challenger, the conservative Law and Justice party of Jaroslaw Kaczynski. The poll, by the TNS OBOP institute, showed Kaczynski's party winning 30 percent of the votes.
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A new left-wing party, Palikot's Movement, was in third place in the exit poll with 10 percent. Led by entrepreneur and maverick lawmaker Janusz Palikot, the party has been the surprise of the election season, gaining popularity in a short time on promises to fight the power of the Roman Catholic church in society, support gay rights and legalize marijuana.
"It is amazing that millions of Poles want a secular, friendly, civic and social state," Palikot said.
Tusk's apparent victory comes after he has presided over four years of impressive economic growth. The country managed to keep growing even in 2009, when the rest of the European Union fell into recession, a feat attributed to an inflow of EU funds and a large domestic market of 38 million that maintained an appetite for consumption.
"In those four years, they have given proof of competence as leaders of the state and allowed us to live in peace and security," said 80-year-old Michal Wronski, a retired engineer who cast a ballot for Tusk in Warsaw.
The country has also seen a boom in construction in its major cities thanks in part to preparations to co-host the Euro 2012 football championship next year. Poles have watched as dilapidated train stations have gotten facelifts and modern stadiums have mushroomed in some cities.
"It is the highest honor for me and for Civic Platform that we will be working for the next four years for all of you, regardless of who you voted for today," Tusk told jubilant supporters. "In these coming four years we will have to work twice as hard, we will have to act twice as fast."
Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, a leading member of Tusk's party, called the party's showing "confirmation that our concept of European cooperation and modernization of Poland is finding approval."
The government has privatized some state industries and has tried to build better ties with European Union allies as well as Russia. However, its critics fault it for lacking the will to make deeper reaching reforms.
Despite Palikot's strong showing, Sikorski said Civic Platform is interested in continuing its coalition with the Polish People's Party, its junior partner of the past four years. The Polish People's Party is a small farm-based group with conservative social values that favors the interests of farmers. It has 8.2 percent support in the exit poll.
Tusk said coalition talks would begin Monday.
Kaczynski, the twin brother of President Lech Kaczynski, who died in a plane crash last year, acknowledged his defeat at his party's election night gathering.
"We respect the result of the election, but our task for the next four years will be to convince millions of Poles that changes are needed," Kaczynski said.
"I am deeply convinced that the day will come when we will succeed," he added. "Sooner or later we'll win because we are simply in the right."
The only other party that would make it into parliament is the Democratic Left Alliance, with 7.7 percent in the poll. That marks a sharp decline from elections four years ago, when it won 13 percent.
Aleksander Kwasniewski, a former president and once a leading party member, said the result was terrible and warned that "these may be the very last elections in which the Alliance wins seats in parliament."
Official results are to be released Monday. They are often similar to the exit polls but not exactly the same.
Tusk's apparent re-election makes his party the first to ever win two consecutive terms since the fall of communism in 1989, underlying the growing stability that has replaced the political turmoil of the early years of democracy.
In the first 18 years after communism, Poland had 13 different governments -- a new one every 17 months, on average. Now it seems that Tusk could govern for eight years in a row.
"A second term for Civic Platform means stabilization in Poland," said Warsaw Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, a prominent party member. "Stability can bring a lot of good to social and economic life."