Back in 1969, when Grazyna Bialowas was 18 years old, she and a friend planted two rows of trees to beautify the state-owned cable factory that was the center of her world in the town of Ozarow, outside Warsaw. The trees have since flourished, but not the factory. In 1999, an entrepreneur who owned other cable factories in Poland bought it and, a few years later, shut it down, driving some 1,500 people out of work. Bialowas, who had toiled there for 35 years, believes the factory would still be open if Poland had been run by "honest" men back then men, she suggests, more like Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the identical twins who now serve as Poland's President and Prime Minister, respectively, and whose Law and Justice Party (PIS) has governed Poland for the past two years. "I have only good things to say about them," she says.
Outside Poland the Kaczynskis are often portrayed as figures of fun, a duo of unprepossessing country bumpkins who govern by sentiment and sanctimony. They have been pilloried for their obstinate defense of Polish interests in Brussels and for their seeming paranoia about enemies at home. But the PIS is no joke, and it would be a mistake to underestimate its domestic appeal, which is rooted in widespread anxiety about the blistering pace of change since the fall of communism in 1989. Many Poles feel that change was forced on them by corrupt, distant and overeducated leaders. "There is a huge tradition in Poland of the masses grumbling about the nobility," says one Western diplomat. "The PIS is reaching out to all those people who have not been recognized by the post-communist élites."
That appears to be a lot of people. The PIS looks poised for victory in Oct. 21 parliamentary elections, even though the last government it led collapsed just two months ago. The latest polls put the party a few points ahead of the opposition Civic Platform (PO), suggesting that it will again be charged with forming a governing coalition, with Jaroslaw Kaczynski in a prominent position; his brother's term as President does not expire until 2010. That may be a sobering prospect for Poland's E.U. partners, but the Kaczynskis don't answer to them at the polls. Speaking to reporters in Paris this week, Lech Kaczynski said: "Certain things that are very much in vogue elsewhere in Europe just aren't acceptable to the majority of Poles." And, he might have added, vice versa.
Part of the explanation for this is that Poland's new democracy is just 18 years old. Since 1989, successive governments have introduced economic and democratic reforms based on those that Western Europe took the better part of 60 years to absorb. The country is still plagued by double-digit unemployment (2 million Poles now work abroad), crumbling roads and endemic corruption. Poland scored low in the ranks of European Union countries and tied with Cuba and Tunisia in the latest global "corruption-perception index" compiled by the watchdog Transparency International. Public trust in Poland is also among the lowest in Europe, according to a recent Danish study.
That mistrust provides fertile ground for the Kaczynski brothers' conspiracy-minded brand of politics. Founded in 2001, PIS promised to rid Poland of what it calls the uklad, a supposed cabal of former communist officials and businessmen who they claim have controlled the country since 1989. Radek Sikorski, a former PIS member and Defense Minister, says the Kaczynskis were elected in 2005 because "they reflected the public mood of disgust with the previous regime." They are clearly at pains to project a simple, clean-living image. Jaroslaw, the Prime Minister, lives with his mother and a cat and does not have his own bank account. Lech, who is married with a grown daughter, has said that his ambition as President is merely "to reach the end of my term, in good health." In a devoutly Catholic country, the twins align their policies with those of the Catholic Church, opposing gay marriage and abortion, and promoting family values. But the centerpiece of the PIS program over the past two years has been a campaign to root out the vestiges of communist officialdom, notably from Poland's military intelligence and foreign service; Jaroslaw says he needs four more years to root out the uklad. Pawel Zalewski, a senior PIS official, likens the effort to the French purge of Nazi collaborators after liberation in 1944. "It's a question of security and trust at home and abroad," he told TIME. Polish social historian Adam Mielczarek observes that the PIS appeals to ordinary Poles in the same way that the Solidarity movement did in the early 1980s: by telling them "that there is a problem of élites ruling the country."
Yet Solidarity enhanced Poland's image abroad, while the twins' style has bruised it. Their insistence on defending Polish interests with no apparent regard for a broader European vision has frustrated negotiating partners, most notably in ongoing talks over the shape of a new European constitution. "They don't know the rules of the game," says Stephen Bastos, an analyst with the German Council on Foreign Relations. "They don't have a vision of the kind of Europe they want to promote." The twins' combativeness has also left Polish society deeply polarized. Lech Walesa, the Solidarity leader, Nobel laureate and former Polish President, argues that the Kaczynskis' success reflects underlying weaknesses in Poland's democratic institutions that may eventually be addressed. "There is a time for demagogues and populists," he says, "and those types have now been found."
The Kaczynskis have been merciless with their own critics. Even fellow PIS politicians have been sacked for disagreeing with the Prime Minister. When former Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek criticized a proposed law that would have required virtually all Polish professionals to declare whether or not they had collaborated with the communist secret police, Jaroslaw Kaczynski said he was sullying Poland's good name.
Such behavior may hurt the party at the polls. Geremek became a hero for many at home and abroad for refusing to sign any such declaration, arguing that the government was trying to intimidate its enemies. "We are seeing the first real flowering of populism in the post-communist East," he told TIME. The Civic Platform is expected to pick up votes among the so-called élites that the Kaczynskis attack, but the PIS still appeals to a broader range of voters across society.
While PIS leaders are avowedly Euro-skeptic, Polish public opinion remains staunchly pro-European (not surprising, perhaps, given the $6 billion in subsidies Poles receive from the E.U. each year). Moreover, whatever the rhetoric about the dangers of capitalism, Poland's economy is booming, with gdp growth topping 6% last year, and unemployment finally beginning to fall. In time, economic growth, if it continues, may take the edge off the fear-based politics that has taken hold in Poland. Back in Ozarow, Grazyna Bialowas admits that since her beloved factory closed, the town has actually improved, with a Best Western hotel and several new factories springing up on the main street. There is even a new church. Bialowas is not as angry as she was, she concedes. But she's still voting PIS.