Welder Franciszek Wilk, leader of this rural village in southeastern Poland, beams as he shares his favorite statistic. In his more than 25 years as the elected head of the town of 130 households, there has been just one divorce.
He has another data point he boasts about now, too. When Poles selected a president last May, 97.2 percent of the locals voted for the winner, Andrzej Duda of the ultraconservative Law and Justice (PiS) party. It was the highest percentage he got – nationwide, 51.6 percent voted for him.
If anyplace can call itself the conservative heartland of Poland, it is the rural state of Podkarpacie, which registers some of the highest emigration rates in the country as well as the nation’s highest church attendance rate. In October’s parliamentary elections, which saw PiS sweep into power – winning enough votes to govern alone, the first time any party has done so in Poland’s 27-year-old democracy – it was in Podkarpacie where PiS saw its most loyal support. And now many feel vindicated that their long-held values are finally shaping government policy, most recently with the debate over a total ban on abortion.
But this is not the victory of just any conservative party. PiS has raised eyebrows across Europe and even the Atlantic since taking the reins of parliament, the Sejm, in Warsaw. It has consolidated its grip over the courts and the public media, leading to widespread protests in big cities – the anti-government marches this past weekend were, organizers say, the biggest since the end of communism – and rebukes from Brussels. Many worry that the country that was once the poster child of Europe for its democratic progress risks being seduced into an authoritarian grip.
At first blush, it is hard for the outsider to understand how this could happen. The country was a key dissenter against Soviet dictatorship. Since joining the European Union in 2004, Poland has been one of the bloc’s greatest champions – and the feeling was mutual, symbolized by the fact that former Prime Minister Donald Tusk now heads the European Council. In 2009 amid Europe’s grinding debt crisis, Poland was the only EU nation to see growth. Warsaw has gone from a drab Soviet setting to a vibrant European gathering spot, where kale is featured on restaurant menus and art galleries draw global attention.
But that tells only part of the story. Both here and across the Western world, the wedge between political elites and more conservative, religious Poles feels ever wider, making broad swaths of the population more vulnerable to nationalist, exclusionary rhetoric and “strongman” leadership.
Parts of eastern Poland have the EU to thank for their new roads, airports, and buildings – but residents garner little, if any, other attention from European leaders. As the continent becomes ever more liberal on everything from gay marriage to welcoming migrants, the residents here feel culturally bullied. At the end of the day, where Europe sees Poland sliding, supporters see Poland reclaiming the kind of society they want to live in.
“The West perceives Poland as a success story, and definitely it has achieved success,” says Stanisław Sowa, editor in chief of the daily Nowiny, the newspaper with the biggest circulation in Podkarpacie, but “not all people benefited from transformation, and those who didn’t, they feel that they are left behind.”
Divisions in Poland are hundreds of years old and multilayered. In the 18th century, Poland was partitioned by the Prussian, Russian, and Austrian empires, leaving unequal socioeconomic development that is still evident today. The western part of the country, influenced by Germany, is more industrial, while the east is precisely where the sense of “left behind” abounds.
Until the most recent election, voting patterns also reflected those old divides. The formerly Prussian-occupied west long voted for centrist parties, and the formerly Russian east for right-wing ones, drawn to them by a sense of economic deprivation and the appeal of the strongman, says Michał Bilewicz, a social psychologist at the University of Warsaw. The refugee crisis also played a role in PiS’s landslide victories last year.
In some ways the geographic divisions have lessened: The party won over voters throughout the country, including the west and many youths, who formerly voted predominantly for the liberal parties. They were tired of political corruption and an economic model that didn’t benefit everyone.
But socioeconomic divides remain. Today it’s best expressed with the terms “Polska A” and “Polska B,” or second-rate.
It’s a term that leaders of “Polska B” are defensive about. They point out that the inequality gap is closing, thanks in great part to EU funds that have flowed into road systems, the Internet, and big infrastructure projects. A third of the state budget comes from the EU.
“People who have traveled here by car have noticed new good roads and that this region has changed for the better,” says Ewa Leniart, governor of Podkarpacie. “Our houses look even more beautiful than those in Mazovia [the state that includes Warsaw], which is called ‘Poland A.’ ”
Still, rural towns like Łętownia-Gościniec feel isolated, with few trains and sparse bus service. Podkarpacie’s unemployment rate – at 13.2 percent last December – was higher than the 9.8 percent national average. Most telling is the rate of emigration. In the Nowa Sarzyna commune, which includes Łętownia-Gościniec, former mayor and national parliamentarian Jerzy Paul says half of those ages 20 to 40 move abroad for work.
Padraic Kenney, an expert on post-communist Central Europe at Indiana University, says that Poland’s unmitigated success made it easy to overlook those who wouldn’t or couldn’t adapt. “It was really possible to believe very powerfully in this ethos of opportunity,” he says.
He compares it to the Clinton era, when welfare debates split the United States. Recipients were cast off as simply lazy. Likewise, those in Poland who didn’t embrace the country’s transformation were blamed for not seizing post-1989 opportunities.
Mr. Bilewicz says Poland is still separated into “tribal moral communities” that barely talk to each other: a more modern, liberal Poland and a traditional, more defensive one. The latter has often been dismissed by the former as the “mohair berets,” a derogatory term whose name is taken from the headgear worn mostly by religious older Polish women.
Now that PiS is in power, the liberals are the object of derision. Witold Waszczykowski, Poland’s foreign minister, criticized his predecessors, members of the pro-business, pro-EU Civic Platform, for moving Poland into a nation made up of “a new mixture of cultures and races, a world made up of cyclists and vegetarians, who only use renewable energy and fight all forms of religion.”
While ironic – bicycles are actually omnipresent in rural Poland for lack of transport options – the message hints at the social differences that run deeper than the economic ones.
Many of the homes of Łętownia-Gościniec are impressive structures with balconies and are neatly fenced in, many financed with money earned abroad. Residents here say they feel European – Mr. Wilk’s son lives in Belgium, for example, his daughter in the Netherlands. But culturally they are a world apart from a Europe that is associated with gay marriage, euthanasia, and abortion. Many even consider divorce as an attack on the family. Sixty-four percent of people around Rzeszów, the capital of Podkarpacie, attend Mass on a weekly basis, according to church statistics.
“The society here is very traditional, religious,” says a mother of three who gives her name as Anna Jadwiga. “But the people in Łętownia are not too conservative; it is the EU that is too liberal.”
Hubert Kotarski, a sociologist at the University of Rzeszów, says emigration has made the area even more conservative because the most outward-looking tend to be those who leave. Those who stay become more isolated and feel defensive about their way of life, Mr. Kotarski says.
A message attracting followers
PiS, like other populist parties in Europe, has easily tapped into a sense that its homeland is increasingly under threat, both with the rise of Brussels and the refugee crisis that has brought hundreds of thousands of newcomers to the continent.
The message finds willing adherents in Poland, with its history of occupation and invasion, and its unfortunate position between Germany and the Soviet Union in World War II. Today PiS defends its moves by playing on Polish loyalty, casting off its critics as traitors, says David Ost, author of “Solidarity and the Politics of Anti-Politics.”
As Poles, for example, protested against changes to the Constitutional Tribunal, which some say are intended to give PiS more power to push legislation, PiS leader Jarosław Kaczynski dismissed them as “Poles of the worst sort.”
PiS politicians are adamant that democracy is not at risk. “Nothing bad is happening in Poland. PiS is just fulfilling its electoral promises, and none of the points of the PiS program can be seen as a threat for democracy,” says Governor Leniart. “The same critical voices came from the EU when [Hungarian Prime Minister] Viktor Orbán was implementing his program, whose aim was to support more the Hungarian nation and protect its interests.”
Poland is a critical test for Europe, however, because it is much bigger than Mr. Orbán’s Hungary, and it has always been the leader of Europe’s post-communist nations, especially after its ascension to the EU.
And Mr. Ost argues that Europe should be worried, especially as nationalism appeals not just to the far right but increasingly to former leftists who haven’t found their place in the globalized world. “I think what first happened in Hungary and now Poland, these are real potential harbingers for a European future,” he says.
One of the clearest manifestations of what this means to Europe is the refugee crisis. Central Europe has been among the most vocal opponents of the EU quota system to relocate refugees, claiming it is simply protecting its religion and traditions from a Muslim influx.
Władysław Ortyl, the marshal of Podkarpacie, goes back 3-1/2 centuries to defend his position. “Europe should remember its Christian roots. Poland is proud of the fact that it saved Europe from Islamization in the 17th century, when Polish King Jan III Sobieski won the Battle of Vienna in 1683.”
And many here see no hypocrisy, even as they recognize how much Poland has been supported by the EU. When mayors in the state were asked last year by the governor’s office to fill out a questionnaire on who could house refugees, not a single one said he or she was willing. Mr. Paul was one of them. For him it’s about security. “People here are not against their religion but against terrorism,” he says. “Poles who emigrated usually have jobs, help to build economies, and they integrate with local societies. They don’t terrorize others.”
It’s not clear that PiS’s collision course with Europe has made any difference in its popularity. Opinion surveys haven’t shown a significant drop in support to date.
And here, its moves have only emboldened supporters who feel their worldview is finally being defended – and legitimized by the growth of conservatism and nationalism in Europe.
Tadeusz Misiak, Wilk’s cousin and leader of the neighboring village of Łętownia, says that it is Europe that has lost its way.
“People in Łętownia have the feeling that Europe lost its identity. A rush for money has obscured what is really important in life, religion, and values,” he says.
The secondary-school director, Adam Madej, whose sparse office is decorated with the Polish coat of arms, a cross, and a photo of Pope John Paul II, says his country is not regressing, but finally moving ahead.
“We fight for our national interest,” he says. “The EU has tried to dictate solutions or values that maybe work in their societies but that don’t necessarily work here.”
This was part 2 of Who is 'Europe'?, a weekly series on how European natives and residents are responding to pressures from terrorism, migration, nationalism, and the 'European project.' See all of the stories on the series homepage.