Poland's changing countryside may decide election

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ROSTKI, Poland, Sep 29 (Reuters) Alina Wycech fears Poland's Catholic values are threatened, suspects a corrupt elite is trying to claw back power and distrusts the European Union despite its subsidies for her farm.

Her concerns echo those of many in the Polish countryside, which has been a heartland of support for the conservative ruling Kaczynski twins and could prove decisive in next month's parliamentary election.

Although the benefits of three years of EU membership are starting to shift rural attitudes, they are counterbalanced by conservatism rooted in religious devotion and suspicion of foreigners after Nazi and Soviet-imposed communist oppression.

''Perhaps modern people would love the world to become more modernised. But here, patriotism is really very important,'' Wycech said as pigs snuffled near her feet on the 10-hectare farm of potatoes and rye in Rostki, eastern Poland.

Wycech feels the Kaczynskis' Law and Justice party is soft on abortion -- it is not seeking a total ban -- but she will back the party for its proclaimed fight against corruption among a post-communist elite and its tough stance with EU partners.

''If we remain small and unimportant then what would they give us? Nothing. And even now they don't give much,'' said Wycech, 46, who gets around 7,500 zlotys (2,800 dollars) a year in EU money.

Pollsters say Poland's countryside will be crucial to any swing in the Oct. 21 ballot because that is where many of the 20 percent of undecided voters are. Key questions will be the size of turnout and how many votes go to fringe parties.

RURAL SUPPORT The Eurosceptic party of Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski and identical twin Lech, the president, took power in 2005 with strong rural support. The prime minister's coalition fell apart last month, forcing a parliamentary ballot two years early.

No party is likely to win outright, but the vote will decide the shape of a new coalition. Law and Justice is level in polls with the centre-right Civic Platform, favoured by markets for its economic reform plans and more popular in the cities.

You do not need to drive far from Warsaw, past the prospering suburbs with shiny new offices and supermarkets, to reach a very different Poland, where it is harder to tell economic growth is at its fastest for a decade.

Rostki is a cluster of houses some 80 km (50 miles) from the capital. It is set among small patches of crops, pine and birch trees in an area where the best known landmark is the World War Two Nazi extermination camp of Treblinka.

Although villagers often voice approval for smaller parties -- the Peasants' Party, farm-based Self Defence and the far-right League of Polish Families, many acknowledge they will vote for Law and Justice when they reach the ballot box.

Some analysts believe that rural voters will not back the ruling party as strongly as in 2005.

''Quite a significant group could vote for the Peasants' Party because it was always pro-EU,'' said Lena Bobinska of the Institute for Public Affairs in Warsaw.

She said that was ''because of the money they are getting and former fears of the EU are gone''.

CHANGING LANDSCAPE EU membership is changing the landscape in the country of 38 million and not just through the road-building projects.

Some farmers have done well -- new homes are going up, old roofs are being replaced -- while EU membership has allowed youths to head further afield in search of better paid work.

Approval ratings for the European Union have grown dramatically.

Not everyone is a winner, though.

''Bigger farmers have benefited from the European Union but not the small farms,'' said Henryk Wysobek, a 62-year-old smallholder from a village near Rostki who is weighing up whether to back the Peasants' Party or Law and Justice.

''Some people know how to get the funds but some are left out,'' said Wysobek, who credits the European Union for recent improvements rather than the Kaczynskis, often known in the country as the ''little ducks'', a play on their surname.

Poland's countryside is home to overlapping groups that tend towards conservatism -- farmers, the deeply religious and the elderly.

Bringing them out to vote will be vital for Law and Justice in a country where only 40 percent took part in the 2005 election. The fact that the election is on a Sunday should help, since churchgoers can vote after mass.

Many in the countryside, however, are tired of politics and see little benefit from joining in at all.

''I won't vote for anyone. The politicians just shout and squabble and all of Europe knows it. We want a strong leader,'' said Zdzislaw Nozderka, 69, harking back to the communist era as he raked up hay beside his horse and cart.

''Vote for the Kaczynskis? Never. They are just weak little ducks.'' Reuters MP VP0607

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