WARSAW, Poland – Beata Szydlo led a little-known politician to a surprise victory in Poland's recent presidential election. Now she hopes to repeat that winning formula for herself.
The 52-year-old who managed the election campaign of President-elect Andrzej Duda is traveling the country these days in hopes of becoming Poland's next prime minister in the fall parliamentary election. For now, her chances look good, with her Law and Justice party leading the polls.
The rising prominence of Szydlo is part of a deeper political shift underway in the largest of the European Union's eastern nations, where voters seem increasingly disillusioned with eight years of governance by the pro-market and pro-EU Civic Platform party.
It is also part of a new shift within her Law and Justice party, with the sometimes radical leader, former prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, 66, opening the way for younger, more moderate members to take on key roles.
The ruling Civic Platform has overseen strong economic growth during its eight years at the helm, but many Poles are frustrated that the new wealth isn't being distributed more evenly. The discontent has given a boost to Law and Justice, which mixes a deeply conservative, Catholic stance on moral issues with calls for a strong welfare state.
"Over the past eight years, the outgoing ruling party has increased divisions among Poles," Szydlo said at a recent party convention. "It's time to put an end to a policy of development that benefits only 10 percent of the people. It is time for us all to benefit."
Szydlo, an ethnologist, can claim some credit for the revived fortunes of her party after managing the campaign of Duda, a little-known 43-year-old lawyer who came from behind to win the presidency in May, unseating an incumbent long assumed to be unbeatable.
While President Bronislaw Komorowski seemed out of touch with the problems of regular Poles, Duda, who will be sworn in Aug. 6, crisscrossed the country in his "Dudabus" to meet with voters even in the smallest towns. He promised to improve their lives by reversing a rise in the retirement age and creating conditions for higher wages and job security, problems that drive many young Poles abroad.
Now Szydlo is traveling across the country in her "Szydlobus." The Associated Press joined her as she traveled to towns near Warsaw, where she showed interest in problems ranging from river dikes that need strengthening to Poland's much-criticized national health care system.
A coal miner's daughter and a practicing Catholic, Szydlo's own life seems to embody Polish tradition. One of her two sons is preparing to become a priest. She also grew up in Oswiecim, where the Germans ran the Auschwitz death camp during World War II, and where one of her own great-grandfathers was killed.
Szydlo told the AP that if her party wins, she will continue the current government's strong support for conflict-stricken Ukraine and its backing for a greater U.S. military presence in Poland. But she is interested in keeping more powers in Warsaw, and less in Brussels, seat of the 28-nation European Union.
"We are happy that we are in the European Union. This is a great achievement," she told The AP. "But for me, it's important to have Poland's economic interests and various matters of conscience left with the member nations, whose laws should be above the union laws."
On Thursday she spoke out against a plan for Poland to one day join the 19 nations who use the shared euro currency.
"My government ... will certainly not introduce the euro to Poland," Szydlo said.