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In Poland, the national-populism thrives in the countryside

Patrice Senécal Le Devoir Ireneusz Kossakowski, in his cereal field, on the edge of Wizna. “Their program, at Tusk and its allies, is to destroy what has been built for eight years,” says the farmer, flanked by his tractor. Proud voter of PiS, “the party of farmers and ordinary Poles”, he also praises social transfers.

The ruling party in Poland, Law and Justice, was able to take root in the rural East of Poland, exploiting the frustration generated by the forced march towards the market economy after 1989. Coupled with ultraconservatism, it is the ambitious social protection program, put in place in 2015, which continues to be attractive, on the eve of Sunday's parliamentary elections.

A gentle darkness settles over the town of Wizna, perched on a hill, fields as far as the eye can see all around. It is a village of 3,000 souls like there are others in Podlaskie, in eastern Poland, with its clean streets, its red brick church rebuilt after the Second World War, its wooded park, its popular bakery. In this region with strong Catholicism, where the anchoring of traditional values ​​is transmitted from one generation to the next, the churches are full to bursting, like this day at the end of September. At the corner of the village orchard, the wooden doors of the chapel open. The evening mass has just ended there. On the small square, Maria and Alicja, two friends, praise life in their region, far from the hustle and bustle of the world. “To Wizna, it’s wonderful! Look, these smooth roads, they have been redone, just like the infrastructure, it’s thanks to our government,” exclaims Maria, 66, with a smile on her face. “And the school has also been renovated! » immediately agrees Alicja, 71, elegantly dressed. The purring of a tractor, at the same time, reminds us of the agricultural vocation of the surrounding area, focused on dairy production.

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Here, the ruling national-conservative party, Law and Justice (PiS), is on familiar ground. During the last legislative election in 2019, the party chaired by Jarosław Kaczyński was supported by 77%. This is one of the best scores in the country, which is illustrated four years later on the fences of houses, here and there covered with electoral banners of PiS candidates. A few days before the parliamentary elections on October 15, everything suggests that Wizna will renew his support. The democratic opposition, disavowed, remains discreet there. No candidate from the Civic Coalition (KO), the centrist-liberal formation of Donald Tusk, traveled around the area to campaign. What's the point of trying to persuade when the game is lost in advance?

77% This is the score achieved by the national conservative Law and Justice party in Wizna during the last legislative elections, in 2019.

In this rural Poland, far from large urban centers, the attractiveness of PiS, in addition to its ultraconservative dimension, lies in the vast social assistance program put in place upon its accession to power in 2015. A “redistribution of dignity” , as we welcome here, which contrasts with the budgetary orthodoxy and high unemployment of previous liberal governments. Lowering the retirement age, benefits of all kinds, tax cuts, massive investments in the countryside… And of course, the “500+”, this flagship measure that everyone is talking about at Wizna: an allowance of 500 złotys ($159) per month per child, regardless of income, paid to parents until age 18. The government wants to increase it by 300 złotys, from January 2024. “PiS is the party of families, of retirees, of religion, they go to church, they are like us,” says Maria, not dissatisfied of his 13th and 14th additional months of pension, a largesse from PiS. “And then poverty there became sporadic. Now, parents have the means to send their child on vacation or to a school activity. »



The mayor, Mariusz Soliwoda, ironed blue shirt, thinks no less. A third term for PiS, this “right-wing and patriotic” Pole is calling for his wishes, so that his fellow citizens “continue to be winners”. “People from the countryside finally feel taken into account,” rejoices the 53-year-old councilor, who receives us in his office, a crucifix on one of the walls, a framed photo of Andrzej Duda, the Polish president. , placed on a piece of furniture. With his sleeves rolled up, he invites you to follow him outside. Here is the new physiotherapy office, the seniors' club, gleaming fire trucks. Here, a few steps from the town hall, a brand new sports field. And there, the police station which reopened its doors three years ago. “There is work for everyone, and the elderly have enough to meet their needs,” summarizes Mayor Soliwoda, who notes a return of youth to the fold.

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This text is published via our Perspectives section.

In Wizna, however, everything has not always been rosy. It is not so long ago that time when, at the end of communism, in 1989, the town seemed condemned to stagnation and rural exodus. The furniture and textile factories in the small town of Łomża, about twenty kilometers away, which once made the economic heart of the area beat, have closed one by one. The forced march towards the market economy was experienced harshly, transforming the feeling of being downgraded into resentment. The east of the country, referred to as “Poland B” in public discourse, remains grappling with chronic developmental delay, a corollary of the partitions that the country has experienced in history. Inhibited by the Tsarist occupation until the beginning of the 20th century, it never experienced the prosperity of its western neighbor, “Poland A”, shaped by the industrial innovations of the Prussian and Austro-Hungarian supervision over the same period. A century later, the political divisions in contemporary Poland follow more or less the same dividing line. The liberal opposition dominates the west and large urban centers, while Law and Justice thrives among the working classes, especially in the small towns and villages of the East.

“At the time of transition democratic, the mistake of the Polish elites was to ignore the needs of the province”, explains Sławomir Sierakowski, Polish sociologist and columnist, founder and director of the magazine Krytyka Polityczna. Despite the multiple scandals and attacks on the separation of powers that have punctuated the last eight years of national populism, PiS has managed to maintain its popularity. “A fine strategist, Jarosław Kaczyński knew that there existed in these regions a greater tolerance towards an autocratic drift,” adds Mr. Sierakowski. Will a more or less educated worker in the countryside really be ready to die for the independence of justice, if his income has increased by 30% to 40% thanks to 500+? »

Donald Tusk, a “traitor”

What does it matter if the PiS has been able to take advantage of a favorable economic trajectory in recent years, has benefited from historically low unemployment, or if the subsidies from the European Union (EU) have largely helped in the refurbishment of its infrastructure. What dominates, among this more or less politicized electorate, is above all the perception of a party set up as the defender of the common people. In Wizna, the previous legislature of Donald Tusk, prime minister from 2007 to 2014, evokes a litany of bad memories, made up of budgetary orthodoxy and low salaries. In front of the chapel, Alicja and Maria fear a possible return to power of the man who was president of the European Council until 2019. “Tusk has done nothing for the people of the countryside”, roars the first, before shifting into gear. the theme of migration, another electoral fuel for PiS. “With what we see of them on television, we are afraid,” say the villagers, reassured by the presence of the steel wall along the border with Belarus, which has become a route of exile since 2021. “ Otherwise, we would have a kind of Lampedusa in Poland! »

PiS propaganda, sung by public broadcasters at its command, resonates in their speech. Thus, Tusk would be a “traitor”, sometimes subservient to the interests of Berlin, sometimes to those of Moscow, or quick to let “migrants enter Poland”. A story full of slander which finds a wide echo, even in the field of Ireneusz Kossakowski, on the edge of Wizna. “Their program, at Tusk and its allies, is to destroy what has been built for eight years,” says the farmer, flanked by his tractor, looking at his thirty hectares of cereals intended for his cows. dairy. Proud voter of PiS, “the party of farmers and ordinary Poles”, he also praises social transfers. “I have four children, the money from the 500+, we put it aside for later,” confides the 46-year-old, cap screwed on his head.

If there is one thing Ireneusz cannot stand, however, it is the “unfair way the EU behaves towards Poland”. A standoff has raged for eight years between Warsaw and Brussels, which accuses the Polish executive of undermining the independence of the judiciary. An authoritarian drift? Ireneusz Kossakowski, in the middle of his field, gets carried away: “We have a power which protects Polish interests, and Brussels does not like that. I have nothing against LGBTQ people, but Poland has the right to say no to this kind of phenomenon. » Tells him he wants to remain in the EU, “but not as a colony”. In these PiS strongholds, “Polexit” does not impose itself in counter conversations. But we still see Brussels with a critical eye, denouncing its “blackmail”, while part of the European funds have still not been paid to Poland, due to its trampled rule of law. Sunday's vote, assures Ireneusz Kossakowski, will be the most important since 1989. To “avoid a step backwards”, he will vote for the party which was able to listen to him.

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116