In the past few years the Polish city of Rybnik has acquired a new shopping mall and its tenement blocks have been spruced up with European money, yet residents are no longer prepared to give their government credit for the changes.
Opinion polls suggest that in an election later this year, voters across Poland are preparing to dump the centre-right government in office since 2007 and install a conservative party sceptical about ceding more powers to the European Union.
The shift in public mood took many by surprise because the governing Civic Platform party has been lauded for pulling off an “economic miracle” that kept the economy growing when almost every other EU country entered recession.
The evidence from Rybnik – a bellwether city that swung from Civic Platform to the opposition this year – is that many people feel that miracle has given way to disappointment.
“It’s true that everything’s changing for the better, but it’s really too slow,” said Arek, 24, a student in Rybnik, a coal-mining town in southern Poland.
“My girlfriend and I, we just probably won’t vote at all,” he said when asked his intentions for the parliamentary election on 25 October. He declined to give his surname.
The mood in Rybnik matters for the rest of Europe.
Poland’s economy is the biggest in eastern Europe. If the opposition wins power, Brussels will have to reckon with another powerful state alongside Britain bent on blocking moves towards closer integration.
Meanwhile big European firms, which have relied on profits from their Polish subsidiaries to get them through the downturn, will face higher taxes and tougher regulation.
Shift in mood
In the constituency of nearly 600,000 voters centred around Rybnik, Civic Platform, known by its Polish acronym PO, scored nearly 45% in the last two parliamentary polls, squarely beating all other parties.
But in a presidential election in May, the city’s voters swung the other way and backed opposition challenger Andrzej Duda of the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party.
Voting data for Rybnik show he outpolled Bronislaw Komorowski, the incumbent who is allied to Civic Platform, by four percentage points.
“I, together with my entire family, have always voted PO, even my 80-year-old mother,” says Zofia, a 52-year-old stationary shop assistant. Today, she says, she is not so sure PO deserves her vote anymore.
A coal mining centre, Rybnik offers a snapshot of the transformation Poland has undergone, and of how much is still unchanged.
Since 2002, the town of 130,000 has received nearly 500 million zlotys (€121 million) in various grants. The city’s website lists more than 60 projects co-funded by Brussels.
Plaques on several of the town’s tenements state that the housing was refurbished with EU funds.
On a sunny Monday afternoon, the tidy, mostly restored old town was bustling with people, trade in local shops and cafes was booming, and the nearby gleaming shopping mall, host to a few expensive retailers, was packed.
Yet as elsewhere in Poland, there are still corners that have not yet received a facelift. The train station has been repainted but the platforms are dirty and crumbling.
Local people complain that public services are short on investment and that the social safety net provided by the state is shrinking.
“I’m mostly concerned by the chaos in the health service,” said Zofia, the once-staunch PO supporter.
“Recently my niece had to have eye surgery. The waiting time was nearly two years. It’s embarrassing to admit, but we had to pull some strings.”
Efforts by the European Commission to persuade member states to admit mandatory quotas of asylum seekers are another concern.
“I’m all in favour of globalisation, but it worries me that the EU wants to force us to accept migrants,” Zofia said. “This could get us into trouble.”
Antoni Holoda, a 62-year-old engineer said he was angry the government had raised the retirement age. He did not remember for whom he voted in the last parliamentary election but he will definitely not vote for PO this year.
“Why would I? Not so long ago, a friend of mine passed away – according to the new rules, he would have still had four years to go until retirement,” Holoda said.
Containing spending on public services and pensions is part of a government strategy to promote economic growth. And it has worked.
Poland’s economy has grown 33%, compared to the euro zone’s two% since 2007, the year Civic Platform came to power. It is forecast to outstrip most western EU peers with 3.5% growth this year.
But over the same period, wages have risen just 18%, giving some Poles the feeling that a wealthy, well-connected elite is reaping the fruits of their labour.
Ruling party officials fuelled the sense of inequality when they were recorded secretly last year ordering expensive wine in exclusive Warsaw restaurants and making scathing remarks about people less well-off than themselves.
Another sore point in Rybnik is a sense that some aspects of European integration are not benefiting Poland – a perception previously drowned out by enthusiasm for the unrestricted travel and EU money that membership brought.
Curbs on carbon emissions are one such concern in a town that earns its living from CO2-heavy coal.
“There is no way out of all of this if we needed to – you just have to look at Greece,” said Dorota Marcinkiewicz, 43, a business owner, who voted for the opposition candidate, Duda, in the presidential election run-off.
She accuses Polish leaders of failing to stand up for national interests in Europe.
“They only do what Brussels tells them,” Marcinkiewicz said.
The Presidential elections in Poland on 24 May were won by eurosceptic Andrzej Duda, a result that has alarmed the government, which faces its own election race later this year.
With parliamentary elections due in late October, the defeat of outgoing president Bronis?aw Komorowski, an ally of Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz and a former Civic Platform lawmaker, will weigh on the EPP-affiliated party's chance of re-election.
- 25 October: General elections in Poland