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RADAWIEC DUŻY, Poland — Forget mass campaign rallies: Poland’s ruling conservatives are betting that prayer, straw-weaving contests and homegrown disco hits can win them this fall’s general election.
At an airstrip in Radawiec Duży, in the country’s eastern rural heartland, planes have been cleared to make way for the central stage. Some 200 people are ushered to their seats to the sound of folk music sung by a local choir.
Despite the sweltering summer heat, the men wear dark suits and the women traditional floral dresses and skirts as they gather around the stage. On this otherwise barren stretch of land, everything — and everyone — is adorned with stems of straw.
Dożynki, as the festival is called, is a celebration of rural life and the summer harvest. At its heart lie the elaborate sculptures woven by local peasant women. Later in the day, a competition will be held to choose the best one, from among those crafted into a Polish eagle, storks and even a crucified Jesus Christ.
The festival is held annually, and countless others like it take place throughout rural Poland between August and September. This year, however, it takes on a double meaning, as it melds neatly into a string of what are being cast as “picnics” in which the ruling party is hoping to shore up its support in traditional countryside bastions.
On October 15, Poland will hold a national election in which Jarosław Kaczyński’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) wants to win an unprecedented third term in office. To do so, they need the support of rural voters. But amid mass protests by farmers, furious over farm produce pouring across the border from Ukraine, their traditional constituency is wavering.
Preaching to the choir
One by one, local dignitaries take the stage to thank the farmers for their hard work and dedication. Jarosław Stawiarski, the 58-year-old marshall of the Lublin voivodeship, or region, decides to take it up a notch, highlighting that the PiS-led government has done more to help the countryside than any other before it.
“The Polish countryside is the essence of our nation,” he tells the crowd. “The people in power now are doing everything they can to ensure that the farmer’s toil is fairly rewarded. God bless.”
Bishop Mieczysław Cisło leads a traditional Catholic mass with a cautionary message: The secular West is a threat to Poland’s traditional way of life.
“Today a fundamental conflict is taking place over the shape of a united Europe and the attitude of those who are responsible for their homeland, for the nation,” Cisło says.
“People don’t appreciate the great sacrifice, every drop of blood shed for the nation, every drop of sweat from the farmer’s forehead that soaked into the native soil.”
In the VIP tent, Poland’s education minister, Przemysław Czarnek, nods in agreement, as do the local lawmakers, businessmen, military officials and clergymen seated around him.
Soon, everyone will break bread blessed by Cisło.
Most of the people gathered at the airstrip, however, are farther afield, mingling among the stands selling curly fries, sausages, beer and tractor-shaped balloons. There’s an amusement park with a 30-meter drop ride and bumper cars. Older children can experience what it feels like to be part of Poland’s burgeoning military by holding a sniper rifle under the watchful eye of a uniformed army officer.
A PiS volunteer collects voters’ signatures. She gets one from a frail 80-year-old man called Marek, who’s biked here from the regional capital of Lublin, about 12 kilometers away.
“Donald Tusk is an anti-Polish German,” he says, referring to the leader of the main opposition group, the Civic Coalition, which is seeking to dethrone the government. “PiS doesn’t lie — at least not usually.”
Marek declines to give his full name because he doesn’t trust the Western media.
Back by the stage, the last of the speeches are finished, the straw sculptures are taken down, and the VIP guests disperse.
The organizers are lucky — similar PiS-linked celebrations elsewhere in the country this summer have not gone as smoothly, with one resulting in the near crash of a Black Hawk helicopter worth tens of millions of dollars.
‘Not my vibe’
Soon the stage is being prepared for evening concerts of disco polo, a Polish variant of dance pop that is hugely popular in the countryside.
The crowd has swelled to thousands — but it’s also undergone a generational change.
Patryk Bielak, 30, came with his girlfriend, but they skipped the earlier part of the program.
“We came for Zenek,” he says, referring to one of the disco polo performers. “We’re young, we’re not interested in political pandering.”
Bielak plans to vote for the Civic Coalition.
Another late arrival, Gabriela Frąk, 20, has opted for the far-right Konfederacja.
“PiS has nothing to offer young people,” she says. “Everything is packaged for seniors who won’t have much influence on what will happen in Poland in 10, 15 or 20 years.”
With just over a month to go before the October election, PiS is still in the lead with 37 percent of the vote, according to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls. The Civic Coalition is in second place with 31 percent, followed by Konfederacja with 10 percent.
CORRECTION: This story has been amended to correct the first name of Poland’s education minister.