When the Polish national elections came to an end in October 2015, Radek and Ania Szwed looked on hopefully. The right-wing PiS—short for Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or the “Law and Justice” party—emerged in a landslide victory, grabbing 37.5 percent of the vote and a parliamentary majority. With the presidency also under PiS’s control, it was the first time one party had complete dominance over the government in Poland’s 25 years of democracy. “PiS promised us one thing…that things would improve for people like us,” Ania explained when I visited her and her husband at their home in Unisław, a village in north-central Poland.
The Szweds are longtime, if prudent, supporters of PiS. They think that it, more than any other party in Poland, has politicians with good ideas who are working to help Poles in the ways that matter to them. After many years of rule by other parties, the Szweds are glad that PiS was given a chance. “People wanted changes, wanted something to change for them, and voted for PiS…[so] that they could live and function better,” Radek said.
He was not alone in thinking this: PiS had appealed to a wide array of voters, largely due to its promises of economic relief. The party promised to implement a social-welfare program called 500+, which would provide families a monthly subsidy of 500 zlotys (roughly $125) for every second and subsequent child. PiS also promised a national employment program that would create 1.2 million jobs, curbing unemployment and giving young people an incentive to stay in the country. In 2014, 17 percent of the population was at risk of poverty; without welfare, that number would have been almost 44 percent. A national unemployment rate of around 10 percent in 2015—20 percent for young people—meant that many Poles struggled to get by. Electoral maps show that most of the eastern, poorer regions of the country voted for PiS, while the western, more industrialized areas tended to support other parties.
A couple of years ago, the Szweds moved to Unisław from nearby Bydgoszcz, a city of almost 400,000 people, to provide their three children with some open space and quiet. The Szweds continue to spend a large chunk of most days in Bydgoszcz—Ania as a nurse at the Center of Oncology, and Radek as a public-administration official at a regional government office. While they consider themselves part of the middle class, their lives are not without hardship. Some years ago, when Radek was out of a job, the family was under significant strain; even now, with both of them working in the city, the commute, which takes them across the Vistula River, is long, and their days are very busy. Radek and Ania hoped PiS would enact changes that would make a difference in their day-to-day lives, like lowering taxes on children’s clothing and offering paid maternity leave. More basically, Radek said, “people thought that when PiS [came] into power, they would raise their incomes.”