KOBYLIN-BORZYMY, Poland (AP) – Life has always been hard for Witold Pogorzelski, a farmer in eastern Poland. Fuel shortages in the communist era prevented him from transporting his produce. In the capitalist era, the nearby sugar factory that provided an income to him and his wife was forced to close.
But now, as the 64-year-old prepares for retirement, he feels like there’s finally a bit of hope.
He and his wife Barbara are among those who voted for the populist Law and Justice party, which won power in 2015 promising to help those left behind by the inequalities of Poland’s free-market era, to protect traditional Catholic values and to rebuild national pride.
The party won 38 percent of the vote nationally, which gave it a majority in parliament. But here in Kobylin-Borzymy, a modest rural community about a 2½ hour drive northeast of Warsaw, the party won 85 percent. Support was also very high in many surrounding communities, making this the heartland of a populist revolt bringing radical change to the Central European nation of 38 million people.
Months before Britain voted to leave the European Union or the United States elected President Donald Trump, Poles booted out their own political establishment, a pro-business and pro-European party, Civic Platform, which had governed for eight years.
Since then, Law and Justice party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has pushed a populist agenda, boosting welfare spending while consolidating the party’s power in a style critics call authoritarian. Law and Justice has eroded the independence of state institutions, including the judiciary and the media, alarming the EU and liberal Poles and sparking street protests in Polish cities for more than a year.
But there is little support for those protests in Kobylin-Borzymy, where priests use their pulpits to boost the party’s image, and where most people echo the government’s argument that the protests are just attempts by political losers to preserve a rigged system.
Many across Poland believe the country’s previous leadership was numb to the struggles of those rural communities, which have enjoyed little of the economic boom that followed Poland’s EU accession in 2004. Poland has enjoyed uninterrupted growth for more than a quarter century, even during 2008 financial crisis. But that new wealth has been distributed unequally, transforming Poland’s cities but leaving behind places like Kobylin-Borzymy, which sees its youth flee for better opportunities.
“Empty houses stand in the village. People have all fled,” said Pogorzelski, whose five children have all either moved to the nearest city, Bialystok, or commute there daily for work. “Everything was ruined, sold.”
A local sugar factory used to buy the beets that he grew and also employed his wife, but it was shuttered under the market economy rules. Now he raises cattle and grows wheat and barley, earning just enough for a very modest life. EU agricultural subsidies are irregular and often late, he added.
The Pogorzelskis and many others welcome the populist government’s benefits: free medications for the elderly, higher pensions, a lower retirement age, a hike in the minimum wage from 10 zlotys ($2.32) per hour to 12 zlotys ($2.79). Most popular, however, is the party’s flagship program: monthly cash payments of 500 zlotys ($125) for all second and subsequent children in a family up to the age of 18. Very poor families with only one child also qualify.
“It’s even strange to see this in politics – they are keeping their promises,” said Leszek Mezynski, 60, a county council member who spoke in sub-freezing temperatures as he, his wife and son chopped firewood to heat their home.
But in a place where social life centers around the local Catholic church, the party’s defense of conservative values is crucial to its appeal.
“The attachment to faith, to tradition, to the church, is very, very strong,” Mezynski said, describing an aversion in the community to feminism, gay rights or other liberal Western ideas. He says the government is acting to “save the national and religious identity of Poland.”
But even this land of believers has its dissenters.
Jolanta Jedruczek, a 50-year-old funeral home owner, believes the cash bonuses for children are helpful to many, including to her daughter, who has two children. But she worries that Poles will eventually be taxed more to pay for the expensive program. She is also critical of the deep conservatism in the community, especially the unchallenged authority of priests.
“This is still a backward region,” Jedruczek said.
The ruling party inherited a sound budget from the previous government and so far can afford the payments.
Government statistics show 16,000 more births in 2016 compared to the previous year, an important achievement for a country with a low birthrate and a shrinking population. The Center for Social and Economic Research in Warsaw says it’s still too soon to quantify how many have been pulled from poverty thanks to the child payments.
National polls put support for Law and Justice at around 40 percent, which is high in a multi-party system like Poland’s and more than twice the support for Civic Platform, the main opposition party.
Pogorzelski said his prospects have already improved under Law and Justice. He can retire when he turns 65 this year and instead of the 760 zlotys ($187) per month he had expected, he will get 1,000 zlotys ($245).
He thinks they will be able to get by on that, thanks to the low cost of living in their rural area and his plans to keep on growing their own food.
He also credits the conservative government with rising beef prices – even though economist Krzysztof Glowacki with the Center for Social and Economic Research says those higher prices are due to international markets, not any government intervention.
Pogorzelski’s wife Barbara, 60, is also pleased, but expects it to take much longer for significant improvements to come to what she sees as a ruined land.
“Yes, they think about the people, but you can’t make something out of nothing,” she said as she fried pork chops. “You need years to mend it all.”