RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It's election season in Poland and there's a clear favorite. At a time when neighboring economies are slowing, the ruling Law and Justice Party has overseen one of the fastest growing economies in Europe. It's also one of the continent's most conservative parties with a nationalist message that's gaining traction. Here's NPR's Rob Schmitz.
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ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: To understand the politics of Poland, this is a good place to start.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Polish).
SCHMITZ: Thursday night mass at the Immaculate Conception Church, the heart of rural Gora Kalwaria, an hour outside of Warsaw.
Eighty-year-old Kazimiera Sokolowska (ph) prays there three or four times a week.
KAZIMIERA SOKOLOWSKA: (Through interpreter) Being Polish means God, children and family.
SCHMITZ: She thanks the ruling party, Law and Justice, for sharing her church's values.
SOKOLOWSKA: (Through interpreter) I think it's good we have a government that represents our religious convictions and that's also concerned for the common man.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Polish).
SCHMITZ: The Law and Justice Party was founded by former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his identical twin brother, the late Polish President Lech Kaczynski - both were pro-democracy leaders decades ago under communist rule.
The party won Poland's last parliamentary elections in 2015 with an outright majority, a feat no party has done since the fall of communism.
The party's message - that people have not benefited enough from the country's post-communist economic liberalization and integration into the European Union - appealed to Poland's working class. And in a country where 9 of every 10 citizens are Catholic - a third of them who regularly attend church - what the party calls its pro-family social agenda is popular, too.
ANDRZEJ JEROMINEK: (Through interpreter) Because those are the values tested over many centuries, and because those are values that not only lead to God but also integrate families.
SCHMITZ: Andrzej Jerominek is a parish priest in Gora Kalwaria. He says his parish supports the Law and Justice Party's subsidies for parents who have more than two children, and he backs the party's opposition to gay marriage.
JEROMINEK: (Through interpreter) That ideology is dressed in the feathers of humanistic values, but underneath lies harm for human beings. It has the goal of transforming young minds so that they believe the most important element of being human is the sexual dimension. The government is protecting us against that.
SCHMITZ: And the support that priests lend to the Law and Justice Party is powerful.
JACEK KUCHARCZYK: The political impact of the church is rather limited in big cities. In small areas, they are all-powerful. Basically, they shape politics as they like.
SCHMITZ: Jacek Kucharczyk is president of the Institute of Public Affairs, one of Poland's largest think tanks. He says priests throughout rural Poland encourage parishioners to vote for the Law and Justice Party. In return, Kucharczyk says, the party protects the church.
KUCHARCZYK: As long as we are in power, you have nothing to be afraid. There won't be investigations into pedophilia. There won't be any changes in your privileged position in public institutions such as public schools and so on and so forth.
SCHMITZ: On the streets of Warsaw, Poland's capital, many people NPR interview agree the relationship between the church and Law and Justice keeps both of them in power.
But many, like retired resident Blanka Radomska (ph), are frustrated with other aspects of the party's rule, especially the party's move to grant lawmakers more power over the appointment of judges, threatening their independence.
BLANKA RADOMSKA: (Through interpreter) I don't approve of what's been done to the judiciary. I don't approve of the gall, the arrogance in every area. I'm afraid that if it continues this way, they'll get their hands on the media, too.
SCHMITZ: In fact, in a 232-page party manifesto published in preparation for the October 13 election, Law and Justice outlined new regulations for Polish journalists that rights advocates called an assault on democracy.
The Institute of Public Affairs' Jacek Kucharczyk says a strong economy has helped Law and Justice stay in power, and the party's nationalist populist message has appealed to other Eastern European countries. But he says for Law and Justice, the upcoming election poses an existential threat.
KUCHARCZYK: These people have done so many things during the four years in power that they will likely face legal actions if they lose power, so it's make or break for them. I mean, they have everything to lose.
SCHMITZ: But losing doesn't seem likely. Law and Justice leads its opposition by almost 20 points in opinion polls ahead of Poland's October 13 election.
Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Warsaw.
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