A Tale of Two Polands
The Law and Justice party is tapping into divides that have split the country for centuries—and will probably win this weekend’s elections because of it.
JASIENICA ROSIELNA, Poland—The squeeze was so tight that when Adas Malinowski, the youngest of five, was born in early 2018, all his stuff was kept in storage boxes. In a single bedroom that had to accommodate a family of seven, there was no room for a wardrobe.
It was only last year that his mother, Anna Malinowska, moved her family out of her mother’s apartment and into a house that she and her husband had started to build some seven years ago.
And, she said, it would not have been possible without the Law and Justice party, known by the Polish abbreviation PiS.
There are many things Malinowska thanks Poland’s ruling right-wing party for, but what has most significantly improved her life was a subsidy of 500 zlotys (around $130) given for each child per month, regardless of the family’s income. Along with an extra 13th monthly pension payment each year, one-off gifts of 300 zlotys (just over $75) for young students, and few other benefits, the child subsidies have become PiS’s flagship social program. They are costly—almost $20 billion has been spent since the program was introduced in April 2016—yet immensely popular. And they are made possible thanks to continued economic growth and budget surpluses that resulted from, among other things, austerity reforms implemented by the PiS government’s predecessors.
All told, the Malinowski family receives an additional 2,500 zlotys per month (about $640), which for them is basically a third salary. “We dared to take a loan in a bank,” Malinowska, a kindergarten teacher, told me this fall. “All my children have struggled with severe allergies, and the first thing we bought was mechanical ventilation.” Thanks to that, they are less afraid about the kids getting sick.
Malinowska is, not surprisingly, a strong PiS supporter. And in Jasienica Rosielna, a village of 2,256 people located in the far southeast Podkarpackie region, which is often seen as a PiS stronghold, she is not alone in her political sympathies. In this year’s European Parliament elections, PiS received well over 80 percent of the vote there, one of the highest levels of support in the country. In fact, according to data from the National Electoral Commission, PiS has won the whole area (Jasienica Rosielna is also the name of the larger commune of some 8,000 people) in every election since at least 2011 with a steady support of 71 to 88 percent.
Jasienica Rosielna is not easy to reach. There’s only one public bus per day from Rzeszow, the capital of Podkarpackie. Otherwise, one needs to take a private bus to the neighboring village of Blizne and then walk some 50 minutes or try to hitch a ride.
With a long street, a congregation of single-family houses, some stores, and a church, Jasienica Rosielna looks like any other sleepy Polish village, and it is a good example of how successfully PiS has merged two seemingly opposite ideas—the high social spending associated with the left and hard-line social conservatism—to form the bedrock of its support.
Malinowska noted that she had backed PiS long before its social programs were introduced. “What I always liked about them was that they have represented Christian values,” which she defined by referring to one of unofficial mottos of Poland: “God, Honor, Fatherland.” And in a place like Jasienica Rosielna, history and Christian identity run very strong. The enduring appeal of politicians such as Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the heavy-handed leader of PiS and Poland’s de facto ruler, lies in their promise of supporting and preserving local communities against all the threats of the modern world.
And, for the party’s supporters, there seem to be so many.
Over the years, PiS has boosted its profile by promoting itself as a protector of Polish families against what Kaczynski has called a “dangerous ideological offensive”—which in recent years has meant many things, including migrants and refugees, the euro, morally corrupted liberal elites, and, most recently, the Polish LGBT community.
For people in the region, one of the most conservative in the country, such rhetoric is easy on the ear. If a gay man came to the village, “no one would beat him,” Krzysztof Chudzio, a parish priest in Jasienica Rosielna, said. “People would simply ignore him.” But, after a long moment of reflection, the priest added, “Another question is, however, what forces are financing the LGBT movement and why? Think about it.” He himself did not have an answer.
For Jerzy Tubek, a carpentry workshop owner and amateur sculptor from Jasienica Rosielna, “a politician’s conservative views are a zero point, a nonnegotiable basis.” A fierce PiS supporter, Tubek acknowledged that the party’s recent economic proposals, including a raise of the minimum wage by 90 percent to 4,000 zlotys (about $1,025) per month over four years, would likely have a negative impact on his company. “It may hurt,” Tubek said. “But if you know that someone is using this money in a proper war, why not share?”
Like many other places in Europe, Poland can feel like a very divided place to live. One line, which divides the country almost in half, informs current political debate. And it shows that, however how much time has passed, Poland still struggles with one of the most traumatic events in its history: the period of partition from 1795 to 1918.
During that time, the portion of the country west of the river was a part of the economically developed Kingdom of Prussia. Today it has faster growth, better infrastructure, and well-off cities. The Civic Platform, a leading liberal-conservative opposition party, mostly targets this half of the country with its message.
The eastern part, though, still bears the burden of having long belonged to the Russian Empire and Galicia, the poorest province of Habsburg Austria. Podkarpackie, which is based in former Galicia, is nearly 60 percent rural, has slower economic growth, and is strongly Catholic—and it is a pillar of PiS rule. It has also become a point of derision for many in western Poland and in Warsaw. In their minds, the locals were either bought by PiS largess or were brainwashed by the church.
The people in Jasienica Rosielna resent such charges. “So much is said about equality, but if you don’t follow the mainstream, you are attacked as we are now,” Urszula Brzuszek, mayor of Jasienica Rosielna and a member of PiS, told me at her office. “Some people feel simply sorry hearing these epithets, some are appalled.”
Faced with economic hardship and a long-term sense of abandonment by urban elites, the people of Jasienica Rosielna, “are canny, pragmatic, and resourceful. And we are not second-class people,” Brzuszek said in late September. “We read, watch all the TV stations, from those close to the government to the most oppositional. If people vote as they vote, it means they really agree with what PiS has offered.”
And it offered something more than bags of money. The party also gave locals a sense of dignity, Dominik Szczepanski, a political scientist at the University of Rzeszow, suggested. The region “is reexperiencing its identity in a new way,” he said this fall. Ruling politicians tell locals that they do not have to be ashamed of their old-fashioned values. And beyond that, they treat the region not as a backwater but as an integral part of Poland. And they are right: Although Podkarpackie’s GDP is among the eight smallest of all the regions in the country, over the last decade it has also seen a major flow of European and private investment, which has contributed to reducing its unemployment to a record low level of 7.9 percent.
No wonder that the candidates of the opposition parties rarely visit Jasienica Rosielna or any other neighboring village. They don’t even bother to post billboards and posters, as if they recognized it is a lost land. After all, Jasienica Rosielna is one of few communes in Poland where not even one opposition candidate was elected to the city council.
In elections this weekend, PiS is likely to win, possibly forming a supermajority in Parliament. But, after four rocky years in power, its image of untrammeled moral rectitude and toughness on corruption has been tarnished. The party stands accused of undermining judicial independence, rewarding loyalists by distributing public assets, misusing the secret service, leading a hate campaign against opponents in media and government agencies, and more.
Many of those interviewed in Jasienica Rosielna said they had heard about the scandals.
“No one is perfect. Black sheep are in every party,” Katarzyna Zych, a bookkeeper, told me. “I see hatred in Kaczynski, which is likely caused by Smolensk, and I don’t like it,” she said, referring to the 2010 airline disaster that killed Kaczynski’s brother. She continued, “I don’t enjoy everything they do, but under any other party we will be forced to accept all the things we can’t accept.”
And at any rate, there are no circumstances under which Malinowska would vote for the Civic Platform. “For them, the poorer person is less worthy,” she said. “But sometimes you need to help these people, you have to show the path they can follow.”