Warsaw, Poland – The local band began its trumpet flourish, and as the president walked in, some 500 people jumped to their feet. Applause roared through the empty white warehouse. The stage lit up in red, matching the flags adorning its walls.
President Andrzej Duda was visiting Nowe Miasto Lubawskie, a northern Polish town of just 11,000 people, to open a new furniture factory on a Wednesday afternoon.
“It’s an honour,” said Ewa, who packages furniture for transport, seeing the country’s top official for the first time. “He values us, despite us being a small town.”
Zbyszek, a company driver here, said the presidential visit had been the main topic of conversation all week, but noted, “The [presidential] campaign has begun, everyone probably knows that.”
Andrzej Duda, previously of the Law and Justice Party, is already labouring away in his bid for re-election – though voting day is not until late next spring.
“We’re still at an early stage in the campaign, because we don’t yet have a full set of candidates,” said Marcin Duma, head of the Market and Social Research Institute in Warsaw. The two largest opposition groups, the centre and the left, are still mulling over suitable opponents for Duda.
While the incumbent’s chances are hard to gauge, a survey published on December 12 reported 63 percent of respondents approving of Duda’s presidency. He is also ranked by Poles as the country’s most trusted politician, with 65 percent support.
The small town tactic
Small towns and villages, home to 60 percent of Polish voters, have traditionally been the electoral bastion of the ruling Law and Justice party.
According to an Ipsos poll, support for the incumbent is at 50 percent in the countryside and 52 percent in small towns. In the largest cities, the stronghold of the centrist opposition, it stands at only 18 percent.
And as the 2020 election approaches, he shows no signs of slowing down his travels.
Many of Duda’s destinations have not been visited by a head of state since 1989, when Poland shook off the yoke of communism, while others have never seen a Polish president visit.
Speaking to Nowomiejski county residents on Wednesday evening, the president started by noting: “It is a fact, a historical fact, that since [Poland’s interwar leader] Field Marshal Jozef Pilsudski’s visit in 1921, no head of state has been here.”
Cheers went up in the hall, as the crowd of 300 people chanted “Thank you, thank you!”
While often overlooked by the national press, these visits are social highlights for small-town residents, who bring out their village orchestras, housewives’ associations, Scouting groups and folk dance troupes. Meetings always open with the singing of the national anthem.
Duda’s speeches, which are generously laden with anecdotes about the importance of the region, are well received.
During his Wednesday visit, he plucked dates from the annals of the town of Nowe Miasto Lubawskie, reciting its entire history to the surprised supporters. Adam, a retired furrier who waited for an hour to see the president, was visibly impressed: “An element of history, a bit about the region, and all that off the top of his head.”
Rural areas are fertile ground for the government’s generous handouts and welfarist policies, and Duda keenly presents himself as the guarantor of their continuation.
Since taking office, Duda has tripled the size of his domestic visits team, which helps craft speeches, from two to six members, a source from inside Duda’s office told the Polish press.
Handshakes and selfies
Duda’s campaign is focusing on building his image, but will turn to mobilising voters in the months leading up to the spring vote, Duma told Al Jazeera.
Handshakes and selfies are the groundwork for boosting supporter turnout.
“You can’t just have a television or social media campaign. It is simply not enough. For voters to turn out, they often want to see the candidate with their own eyes,” said Sergiusz Trzeciak, a strategic communications expert.
As broadcasts and social media posts amplify each visit to a wider audience, the direct campaign then becomes the foundation for the media campaign.
During the factory visit on Wednesday, some 50 hands shot up with phones to take a photo as Duda entered.
“A sound, direct campaign is one where the president lets people take selfies with him, so that they can then be posted on Facebook, and reach hundreds or thousands of followers,” added Trzeciak.
Back in 2015, when the then-unknown Duda was put up against the popular incumbent President Bronisław Komorowski, it was his intense three-month tour of small-town Poland that won Duda widespread recognition.
At the time, smaller towns, including Nowe Miasto Lubawskie, noted that only one of the candidates took the trouble to visit.
“The strategy works,” concluded Duma. “What is more, it has historically worked, because it is the strategy that made Andrzej Duda president.”