WARSAW, Poland – The ruins of an abandoned factory were chosen for effect. For this press conference, other spots in the Polish town of Nowa Sol would not do: not the modern industrial park, or the revitalized port, or the renovated old town.
Beata Szydlo, a conservative campaigning to become Poland's next prime minster, stood before the shuttered factory to make her case that Poland is in a sorry state after eight years of government by a pro-business party and that her conservative and welfare-minded Law and Justice party will revive the country's industrial base and create new opportunities for struggling Poles.
A quarter century after the fall of communism, the nation of 38 million is bitterly divided between successful Poles profiting from one of Europe's fastest growing economies and those struggling with low wages and other inequalities of the capitalist era. In an election year dominated by this clash of views, Szydlo's populist party has tapped into frustration to become the front-runner in parliamentary elections on Sunday.
"This should be a place of production," Szydlo said as cameras took in a wide view of the desolate site. "It should give people jobs and a secure future."
The mayor of Nowa Sol was furious and slammed Szydlo's press conference as a "pathetic spectacle."
"Mrs. Szydlo didn't have herself photographed against the background of a beautiful and developing Nowa Sol," Wadim Tyszkiewicz said, "because that would go against the false thesis of her party that Poland is in ruins."
The summer press conference struck a nerve to become a defining moment in the campaign. Since then, thousands have joined an anti-Law and Justice movement on Facebook ironically called "Poland in ruins" (Polska w Ruinie) which mocks the notion with photos of modern cities, gleaming new sports facilities, bustling malls and other evidence of a thriving nation.
"If we applied the criteria of the Law and Justice candidate, Mrs. Szydlo, then the United States is a ruin while under communism our country was flourishing," Leszek Balcerowicz, the economist who authored the pro-market reforms of the early 1990s, said in a recent interview in the Gazeta Wyborcza daily.
When Poland threw off communism in 1989 it moved quickly to embrace free-market policies, with low taxes on corporations and a weak social safety net by European standards. The policies kept down debt and attracted massive foreign investments, bringing prosperity to many, especially in the cities.
Yet many object to the precariousness of life today. The average monthly salary is 2,800 zlotys ($750; 660 euros) post-tax, but many earn far less. Many Poles also work on temporary contracts with few benefits, widely called "junk contracts." Taken together, these working conditions have driven more than 2 million Poles to seek better opportunities in Western Europe since Poland joined the EU in 2004.
Sociologist Dominik Owczarek says that in the debate over whether Poland is a success or failure, "both sides are right."
"Part of society is very successful but a smaller part is unsuccessful and still experiences many difficulties in daily life," said Owczarek, an analyst with the Institute of Public Affairs in Warsaw. Even though the poor and disadvantaged are in a minority, they tend to be highly motivated voters with the power to influence the election outcome, he said.
The idea of a Poland in decline is, on one level, a backlash against an opposing narrative promoted by Civic Platform, the pro-business and centrist party that has overseen steady economic growth during its past eight years of rule. As Poland continued to grow even when the rest of Europe fell into recession during the global crisis of 2008-2009, former Prime Minister Donald Tusk, now the EU president, stood before a map of Europe with Poland depicted as a "green island" of growth surrounded by countries colored red, hailing his country's achievement.
That celebratory message angered many Poles, building a widespread sense in Poland that the governing elite had grown arrogant and out of touch with the struggles of regular people, anger that has already caused Civic Platform to lose the presidency earlier this year to the Law and Justice candidate, Andrzej Duda.
Another Law and Justice victory on Sunday would complete the nation's shift to a brand of politics that mixes patriotic rhetoric, deeply conservative social values and a desire to use the state to level out economic inequalities.
The party promises to reverse an unpopular rise in the retirement age and put more money into the pockets of struggling families with tax breaks, monthly cash bonuses for children under 18 and free medication for people over 75. It also wants to raise taxes on the mostly foreign-owned banks and big supermarkets in Poland and give tax breaks to smaller local businesses and those that adopt Polish technologies.
"This party takes care of Poland's interests and of those of ordinary Poles like myself," said Grzegorz Jezewski, a 39-year-old historian at a recent party rally in Krakow.
Critics, however, slam its economic policies as irresponsible and a threat to the state's financial health.
Recent polls show Law and Justice with support ranging from 32 to 39 percent, putting it around five to 14 points ahead of Civic Platform depending on the poll and much further ahead of some smaller parties.
It has also gotten a boost from its anti-migrant stance, tapping into a widespread fear that Muslim refugees would erode the nation's strong Roman Catholic identity. Should it win, Law and Justice could strengthen the anti-migrant forces across the continent.
What effect a Law and Justice victory might have on other aspects of foreign policy is less clear given that it shares the current government's skepticism of Russia, support for Ukraine, and its strongly pro-NATO stance.
When it held power in the past, there were sometimes tensions with European powers, mainly Germany, due to the combativeness and Euro-skepticism of party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his late brother, President Lech Kaczynski, who died in a plane crash in 2010.
But President Duda has taken a conciliatory approach to Germany, signaling the possible start of a new era in the party's foreign policy approach.
Monika Scislowska in Krakow, Poland, contributed to this report.