A Less Polarized Poland? Not Yet, Election Results Suggest.


Three years apart in age, the brother and sister grew up in a tiny village in eastern Poland, helping out on the family farm and going to church each Sunday under pressure from their parents.

Today, the siblings, Monika Zochowska, 38, and her brother, Szymon, 41, are separated by a wide gulf opened by politics and outlook — examples of the many chasms cleaving Poland as it wrestles with the results of a recent general election that handed a narrow majority in Parliament to opponents of the nationalist governing party.

Monika and Szymon stand on opposite sides of perhaps the deepest of those divides: the gap between villages and small towns, which voted heavily for nationalist forces, and urban centers, which gave overwhelming support to their more centrist and liberal opponents, notably Civic Coalition, the main opposition party.

Drozdowo, the village where the siblings grew up but which Monika left as a teenager, gave 66 percent of its vote to the conservative ruling party, Law and Justice, and a second, more radical right-wing group, Confederation.

In Mokotow, the high-end district of Warsaw where Monika, a successful entrepreneur and supporter of Civic Coalition, now lives, the two right-wing parties totaled only 25 percent.

“She left. I stayed. Maybe that is why we see things differently,” Szymon, who voted for Confederation, said during a lunch last week in Drozdowo with his parents and his visiting sister.

The urban-rural divide is reinforced by a generational gap that also helped shape the outcome of the Oct. 15 election. For the first time, Poles under 29 — who often move to cities and are leading what the Roman Catholic Church in Poland recently bemoaned as the country’s “galloping” secularization — voted in larger numbers than people over 60, many of whom still go to church and tend to tilt conservative.

With overall turnout at a record 74 percent, women also voted in larger numbers than before, though exit polls indicated that they split their vote fairly evenly between Law and Justice and Civic Coalition. The New Left, the only party that put gender equality and abortion rights at the center of its campaign, fared poorly.

On whatever side they stand in these geographic, gender and generational divides, however, many voters yearn for a less polarized country after a brutal campaign in which Law and Justice and Civic Coalition assailed each other as a mortal threat to Poland’s future.

That may be a tall order. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the Law and Justice chairman and Poland’s de facto leader for the past eight years, has cast Donald Tusk, the leader of Civic Coalition, as the “personification of pure evil” bent on undermining faith and selling out his country to German interests.

Piotr Zochowski, Monika and Szymon’s younger brother, said he was disgusted by both main parties and cast his ballot for Third Way, a centrist alliance that finished third on promises to calm Poland’s ill-tempered divisions. “They are the least dangerous,” he said.

The demonization of Mr. Tusk as a traitor by the governing party and the public broadcasting system it controls helped rally core supporters to Law and Justice. But it alienated others in a country that is ever more secular, connected to the outside world and increasingly resistant to divisive nationalist messaging.

The father of old-school nationalism is Roman Dmowski, an early-20th-century politician who, after railing for years against Jews and Germany, died in Drozdowo in 1939. He is commemorated in a village museum displaying his death mask. The museum has been renovated and expanded with money from Law and Justice, which during the election campaign transferred many of Dmowski’s phobias, particularly his claims of internal enemies conniving with Germany, onto Mr. Tusk.

“Tusk, Tusk, Tusk. That is all they talk about. I can’t take it anymore,” said the siblings’ father, Leszek Zochowski. A conservative but open-minded farmer, he cast his vote for Third Way to support one of its components, the Polish People’s Party, a stolid center-right fixture of Polish politics since the 19th century

Monika left Drozdowo as a teenager to study, first in Warsaw and then in the United States and Spain. She now runs her own beauty product company, Glov, in Warsaw, where she lives with her partner and their 3-year-old child. Her company’s main product is a patented fiber cloth she developed for removing makeup.

Pregnant with a second child, she had worried about another victory for Law and Justice, which in 2020 pushed through a near-total ban on abortion that forced doctors to put the life of unborn fetuses ahead of mothers’ health. “I’m not young. I don’t feel safe having a child here,” she said. “They are fighting for fetuses, not me.”

But the main reason she voted for Civic Coalition, she said, was that “it focuses on the future, instead of always focusing on the past” — meaning Poland’s painful history of occupation and dismemberment by outside powers and the trauma-fed grievances those events have left.

“If you tell people all the time they are victims, they don’t see opportunities, only enemies,” she said.

Szymon also moved to Warsaw for a time but then returned to Drozdowo to grow leeks on the family farm.

The farm is successful but it put him in a different world from that of his sister, who was recently featured in “The Wives of Warsaw,” a Polish version of an American reality television show.

Szymon lives with his wife and their three children in a house next to a yard the family uses to store farm equipment. He attends Mass regularly.

His main political concern is protecting Polish farmers, which is why he voted for Confederation, an unruly right-wing alliance that thundered against Ukrainian grain imports, even though he had run in earlier local elections for Law and Justice.

Law and Justice banned the import of Ukrainian grain in September, but Szymon said it should have acted sooner instead of waiting until the last month of the campaign.

The farm is not a big grain producer but what it did produce this year is sitting unsold in a barn because the market price has been driven down by Ukrainian imports, he said.

Szymon is also wary of the European Union. He said he stayed away from stores like the German-owned Lidl and France’s Carrefour because “I prefer Polish products.” His sister, who sells her goods in dozens of countries, has no problem shopping at foreign supermarkets.

Despite the political differences, Monika tries to see and stay on good terms with her family. She visits Drozdowo regularly, convinced that one of Poland’s biggest problems is that large parts of the population stopped talking to one another.

“I am super proud of where I come from,” she said, “I want to show people that a girl from a small village in eastern Poland can achieve something big in an ethical and hard-working way.”

One of the main reasons Law and Justice managed to win the two previous elections, she said, was that the liberal opposition, centered on Warsaw, showed “huge arrogance” toward conservative voters.

In a gaffe similar to Hillary Clinton’s description of Trump voters as a “basket of deplorables,” Mr. Tusk offended millions of Poles in 2005 by dismissing conservatives as a “mohair coalition” — a reference to the mohair berets many older women wear to church. Mr. Tusk apologized but struggled for years to shake off an image of haughty contempt for much of the population.

The resentment lingers among some in Drozdowo. Monika and Szymon’s cousin, Magda Zakrzewska, 42, married a local resident and lives across the road from the village church with their three children. She said she would never vote for Mr. Tusk or his allies because “they can’t be trusted” and “look down on people like us.”

She and her husband, Sylwester, 45, voted for Law and Justice.

Sylwester said he understood why Monika supported the opposition and its promises to repair frayed relations with Brussels. “Everyone is just looking after their own interests,” he said.

Monika’s father and her mother, Elzbieta, 62, disagree with their daughter’s politics but are very proud of her success in Warsaw. Seeing little they like in Law and Justice, despite sharing many of its conservative views, they say Poland would be a much healthier democracy if people accepted their differences instead of turning politics into an existential struggle between good and evil.

“As you can see,” Leszek said, “there is no party discipline in this family.”

Anatol Magdziarz contributed reporting from Warsaw.


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