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CHRZANÓW, Poland — This village in eastern Poland is marked by two kinds of shrines — the roadside crosses dedicated to Jesus Christ and the electoral banners of President Andrzej Duda.
The hamlet of 1,500 people, nestled in fields of wheat, sugar beet and tobacco, is part of Duda’s rural electoral heartland; he got 91 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election on June 28. His main opponent, centrist Warsaw Mayor Rafał Trzaskowski of the Civic Platform (PO) party, scored only 2 percent.
There’s nothing to suggest any shift in opinion ahead of Sunday’s run-off election.
“People believe in what he’s doing. He’s fulfilling his promises,” said Leszek, a 51-year-old farmer, as he was driving his tractor home from his field. “He’s also a faithful Catholic. Here in Chrzanów, everyone goes to church. Trzaskowski’s views are much more for the city people, not for the countryside.”
The sentiment and the division of votes is similar in many Polish villages — places that form the bedrock of support for Duda and the ruling nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party that backs him.
“It’s a well-thought-out move by Duda to divide Polish society.” — Filip Jatelnicki, Warsaw university student
That’s not the case in Poland’s booming cities, where Trzaskowski is far ahead of Duda.
“I analyzed the electoral programs of both candidates. It wasn’t an easy choice, but for me the deciding factor was PiS’s approach to the law,” said Filip Jatelnicki, a 22-year-old Warsaw university student. “They bend the law to carry out their plans.”
The rural-urban division has come to define Polish politics, and will play a key role in Sunday’s vote — polls show Duda and Trzaskowski in a statistical dead heat.
PiS does very well in the countryside, powered by a heady mix of Catholic piety, appeals to Polish patriotism and heavy doses of social spending aimed at older and poorer voters — just the kind of people who tend to live in places like Chrzanów.
It wasn’t always the case. In the past, left-wing parties and a Christian Democratic grouping called the Polish People’s Party (often known as the Peasants’ Party) did well there. But Duda and PiS changed that.
In the presidential elections five years ago, Duda — then an unknown challenger plucked from the back benches of the European Parliament by PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński — tirelessly crisscrossed the country, tailoring his appeal to people who felt forgotten by the Civic Platform governments of Donald Tusk, the former Polish prime minister and European Council president.
Duda was the first to propose flagship social reforms — a monthly handout of 500 złoty (€112) for children and lowering the retirement age — later picked up by his party.
“Eastern Poland was abandoned before. Have you seen this concrete road? It wasn’t here five years ago. No one is going abroad anymore to work, people have jobs now. We finally have money to take our kids for holidays,” said 41-year-old Piotr, overseeing a team of workers laying a new pavement in Chrzanów.
Over the last five years, Duda has invested huge energy in cultivating his rural base.
He shows up at country festivals, greeted by people wearing traditional outfits, and even takes part in rural dances. He’s pious and makes a show of commemorating Poland’s bloody wartime past.
That gets ridiculed in the cities, where he’s laughed at as a “kneeling president” — for kneeling in church and before national monuments — while liberal media points out the similarity between his visits and those of old-style Communist Party chiefs.
That cuts no ice in the countryside, where he’s seen as embodying Poland’s traditional values in contrast to the Westernized cities.
On the campaign trail, he’s largely avoiding bigger cities. Instead of holding the election evening on June 28 in a big city convention center, Duda was in the central Polish town of Łomża, surrounded by women wearing the region’s rainbow-colored skirts, black bodices and puffy white blouses.
It’s not all smiles and dances. Duda is building a big part of his campaign on attacking what he calls LGBTQ “ideology” and pledging to amend the constitution to ban the adoption of children by same-sex couples. He’s darkly hinted at German interference in Polish affairs while Kaczyński and his backers in the state media accuse Trzaskowski of aiming to sell Poland out to Jewish interests.
“It’s a well-thought-out move by Duda to divide Polish society,” said Jatelnicki.
Duda is also attacking big-city elites — poking fun at the names of Warsaw and Kraków, even though he hails from Kraków, Poland’s third-biggest city, holds a Ph.D. in law and comes from a traditional intellectual urban family.
“I want to keep developing policies … for families. Defend the family, defend the children,” he said at a rally in Stargard in northern Poland. “And not to defend the elites … so that they can stay on their pedestals and be some sort of better part of Polish society.”
That scorn is aimed at Trzaskowski and his most visible supporters. The mayor is a former minister and MEP and a graduate of several international universities. He’s a polyglot, smoothly answering reporters’ questions in English and French. He name-drops philosophers Baruch Spinoza and Edgar Morin in casual conversation.
For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.
His election-eve event was held at a hip new Warsaw shopping mall.
Duda’s supporters make a fuss about Trzaskowski’s more tenuous ties to the church, including not sending his son for first communion, and his backing for LGBTQ rights as Warsaw mayor. Right-wing magazines accuse Trzaskowski of betraying traditional Polish values.
But despite his obvious liberal views, Trzaskowski (who is also from Kraków and, like Duda, also 48) has learned lessons from the previous campaigns in which his party didn’t bother making much of an effort to appeal to rural voters. He’s spending a lot of time in small towns and villages.
He’s also promising not to revoke any of the social benefits introduced by PiS and even suggests new ones, which is crucial for rural voters.
But a big part of his appeal is that he’d stop PiS’s efforts to politicize the courts, the media and other institutions — issues that have created years of tensions with the European Commission.
“I dream about Poland … of open, tolerant, brave and defiant people. I dream of the country where people have strong spines and don’t give in to the oppressive power,” he said at one of his rallies, adding that PiS “is seeking to get a monopoly of power.”
“We can break this monopoly, we can have a strong, independent president.”
He’s also ambivalent about Poland’s harsh abortion restrictions — something that infuriates many clerics in the powerful Roman Catholic Church.
In Boby, just 60 kilometers from Chrzanów, a priest even brought politics into a funeral service this week, calling on parishioners to vote for “a candidate who respects God’s values.”
That’s the kind of voice that has authority in Poland’s small towns and villages.