Mariusz Kowalski


Spatial inequalities and the geography of discontent. Examples of voting preferences in problem areas of Poland

Jerzy Bański, Mariusz Kowalski, Michał Konopski

Przegląd Geograficzny (2023) tom 95, zeszyt 4, pp. 421-446 | Full text

Further information


Inequalities and disparities across space are the result of an unequal distribution of resources and income in and between specific areas. It is primarily on the quality and abundance of internal resources and the level of economic use made of them that regional and local development depends. Resources constitute the competitive advantage regions enjoy and are largely responsible for determining their specialisation and economic functions. It is widely assumed that the activation of a region’s internal potential has a positive effect on the living conditions of its residents and allows for the most-effective use of resources in support of regional development. Such an assumption is guided by the theoretical concepts of territorial capital (Camagni, 2008), endogenous capabilities (Scott and Storper, 2003) or local conditions and local networking (Fujita et al., 1999).

The root cause of spatial inequality appears to lie in natural resources (even if this the more-general geographical location, or the more-specific presence of raw materials, or environmental conditions). These are deemed to have shaped settlement, migration flows, the development of infrastructure in regions, and their economic specialisation.

The result of the outworking of all these processes and phenomena is for areas of differentiated socio-economic development to have developed. As an example, the countries of the European Union suffer from pronounced socioeconomic disparities between regions (Petrakos et al., 2005; Psycharis et al., 2020), even as it is worth noting that, while inequalities between countries are decreasing gradually, inter-regional disparities within countries are actually increasing (Perrons, 2012; Kemenyi Storper, 2020). Very pronounced manifestations concern urban versus rural areas, as it is particularly in agglomeration areas that the labour market, public infrastructure, the services and manufacturing sectors are all concentrated, with the result being a shaping of decidedly-higher wages and levels of wellbeing defined broadly, as compared with rural areas.

Associated with the disparities is the concept of the area (or region) lagging behind, and thus being deemed problematic, depressed, peripheral, handicapped, etc. The connotations of these terms are such as to denote territories characterised by certain phenomena and processes that are negative, and indeed more negative than in other areas. Given that consistent negativity, this study has treated the different concepts as if they were synonyms, given that what counts is that the territories in question represent negative values on the axis of spatial inequality.

In recent years, increasing scientific attention has been focused on the social and political consequences of spatial inequalities, which have gained repeat description in the context of a threat being posed to social cohesion and potentially entailing political breakdown, even as injustice and marginalisation are present. Social discontent is then reflected in the rise of populist and contesting parties that target the establishment.

And so to the core purpose of the work described here, which has sought to determine the consequences of spatial inequality (disparities) as manifested in the political sphere. To that end, this paper begins with a characterisation of the way in which research approaches to problem areas and social discontent have evolved. That then leads into the analysis of voter preferences founded upon comparison of two constituencies (Electoral Districts) located in problem areas of both NW and SE Poland, by reference to the results for the Polish Sejm (Lower House) recorded at the last four elections (of 2011, 2015, 2019 and 2023). The results in these case studies were contrasted with nationwide political preferences, as well as results in a District considered one of Poland’s most-developed socioeconomically. A common thesis in the literature as to the populist preferences of problem-area residents gained tentative acceptance. The study was carried out within the framework of a research project entitled “Social and political consequences of spatial inequality: a case study of Central and Eastern Europe”, which has involved scientific teams from Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany.

The results from the case studies (focusing on the Electoral Districts of Koszalin (in NW Poland) and Chełm (SE)) were contrasted with nationwide political orientations and results from one of the most-elite (and thus implicitly least-populist) localities in Poland, i.e. Poznań. The comparisons made were able to confirm the thesis regarding the more-populist voting preferences of problem-area residents. However, on the Polish political scene, populism cannot necessarily be said to represent a specific ideology on the left-right axis, rather showing a potential to attract voters whose preferences have developed either in local conservative or more-progressive milieus. More ideologically expressive parties, on both the right and the left, obtained comparable and higher results in problem areas than nationwide in both types of community. On the other hand, mainstream parties aware of the potential behind populist factions, are adjusting their electoral programmes to compete for the votes of the “discontented” communities in “left-behind” areas.

Keywords: spatial inequalities, geography of discontent, voting preferences, problem areas, populism

Jerzy Bański [], Instytut Geografii i Przestrzennego Zagospodarowania im. S. Leszczyckiego PAN
Mariusz Kowalski [], Instytut Geografii i Przestrzennego Zagospodarowania im. S. Leszczyckiego PAN
Michał Konopski [], Instytut Geografii i Przestrzennego Zagospodarowania im. S. Leszczyckiego PAN


APA: Bański, J., Kowalski, M., & Konopski, M. (2023). Nierówności przestrzenne a geografia niezadowolenia. Przykład preferencji wyborczych na obszarach problemowych w Polsce. Przegląd Geograficzny, 95(4), 421-446.
MLA: Bański, Jerzy, et al. "Nierówności przestrzenne a geografia niezadowolenia. Przykład preferencji wyborczych na obszarach problemowych w Polsce". Przegląd Geograficzny, vol. 95, no. 4, 2023, pp. 421-446.
Chicago: Bański, Jerzy, Kowalski, Mariusz, and Konopski, Michał. "Nierówności przestrzenne a geografia niezadowolenia. Przykład preferencji wyborczych na obszarach problemowych w Polsce". Przegląd Geograficzny 95, no. 4 (2023): 421-446.
Harvard: Bański, J., Kowalski, M., & Konopski, M. 2023. "Nierówności przestrzenne a geografia niezadowolenia. Przykład preferencji wyborczych na obszarach problemowych w Polsce". Przegląd Geograficzny, vol. 95, no. 4, pp. 421-446.

Durability of the spatial differentiation characterising voting behaviour in Central and Eastern European countries

Mariusz Kowalski

Przegląd Geograficzny (2023) tom 95, zeszyt 1, pp. 57-83 | Full text

Further information


The main objective of the study was to identify the main phenomena and processes related to voting behavior in selected Eastern European countries (Poland, Romania, Lithuania) after 1989.

The political and economic changes, which started some 30 years ago, triggered off the process of transformation of the post-communist countries from the socialist economy, centrally steered, towards the market economy – liberal and open to the global processes. This transformation was accompanied by the dynamic political and social phenomena, culminating with the entry of the majority of countries of Central-Eastern Europe to NATO and to the European Union.

After almost half century of slavery under various kinds and stages of the communist system, the societies of this part of the continent regained complete freedom and could at last decide of their own future. Democratisation of the personal and public life was expressed, in particular, through the freedom of formation of the political, social and economic entities.

One of the very important consequences of the collapse of the communist system was the introduction of free elections institution. Despite the decades of communist unification, it has revealed differences in terms of political sympathies. This variation also had its spatial dimension. One of them was the distinct differentiation in voting behavior between cities and rural areas. Differences are also visible within the latter. Societies affiliated to the socialized sector in agriculture differ from those where individual farming survived. Rural areas with a lower share of agricultural functions (suburbanization, semi-urbanization) also have its distinct character. Significant differences in voting behavior are also evident in the case of national minorities and other ethnic groups.

Variability occurred not only in space, but also in time. The change of influence of individual parties or political options from one election to another is a normal phenomenon. However, there are more durable changes that have a generational character. The researched period is clearly divided into two intervals. In all of the countries here considered it is possible to note similar, although regionally differentiated, tendencies. Thus, in all of them the period after 1989 can be divided up into two parts. The first of these parts, which can be called post-communist, was characterised by the dispute between the centre-right, mostly originating from the anti-communist opposition (the dissident movements), and the groupings, originating from the communist formations. The latter would come to power mainly owing to the support from the inhabitants of the rural areas. The second period is undoubtedly linked with the change of generations. People, who matured under communism, were replaced by those, who grew up during perestroika and democracy. The historical dispute between the communists and anti-communists ceased to be of primary importance. Current problems and new challenges turned out to be more significant. This brought about a reshuffling on the political scene in all of the countries considered. The parties of the post-communist left lost in importance (in Poland and in Lithuania) or underwent a deep transformation (Romania). The change took also place within the political centre-right and was most frequently linked with the reordering of the groupings existing until then and the emergence of the new ones.

This change, though, has not exerted a significant influence on the shape of the already developed spatial differentiation of the electoral behaviour within the rural areas. Most frequently, the support for some parties was replaced by the support for the other ones, in direct reference to the existing spatial differentiation. It can be therefore supposed that the political divisions got inscribed into the persisting spatial differences, having developed owing to the long-term processes. In view of this, the individual communities displayed different susceptibility to the rhetoric of the particular parties or candidates.The communities associated with farming, and especially with the large-scale socialised farming, remained under the strong influence of the post-communist parties. Those communities, which were associated with family farming or developed non-farming activities, were more prone to accept the arguments of the centre-right parties. It also appears that higher support for the post-communist left was observed among the communities from the areas having belonged in the past to the states less connected with the traditions of the western civilisation (like, e.g., Moldavia and Walachia in Romania, or the Western Lands and the former Congress Kingdom in Poland). This was, anyway, also very often associated with the greater susceptibility of these communities to the development of the socialised farming during the communist time. On the other hand, support for the centre-right was more easily generated in the communities, which were in the past more tightly linked with the western civilisation (e.g. Transylvania in Romania or Galicia in Poland), which, as a rule, remained less affected by the communist model of farming.

The nature of the differentiation considered is debatable. One can analyse the socio-economic (structural) conditioning, the influence of the separate civilisation models (methods of organising collective life), or simply the degree of developmental maturity of the given society. These factors can be, anyway, strongly mutually linked in many cases. The social capital (and the associated economic and cultural capital), often indicated by the scholars as an important differentiating factor, might also be treated as a derivative of the action of these factors. Irrespective of the essence of the observed differences, they are, beyond doubt, the effect of differences in the conditions shaping the circumstances of life and activity of the particular communities. Shaping, often over centuries, the separate characteristics of the particular areas and the populations, inhabiting them, these conditions caused, also in the more recent times, and even within the same political units, somewhat different directions of development of the local communities. This kind of differentiation, in turn, was expressed, as well, in the diversified political sensitivity and the associated electoral behaviour patterns. The reaches of the developing differentiation define in the particular countries considered a network of various kinds of informal boundaries, separating the different intensity of phenomena of varying nature. Within the rural areas of Poland and Romania an important role is played by the relict borders, the zones of influence of the large urban centres (of the urban lifestyle) and the ethnic borders (often following the relict borders). In the case of Lithuania, where pronounced relict borders are weaker and fewer, the differences in the voting behaviour are primarily due to the reasons of ethnic, socio-economic (the reach of influence of the urban centres), and in some cases also natural character (like, e.g. the natural conditions for farming activities).

Keywords: elections, electoral behaviour, spatial differentiation, informal borders, Central and Eastern European Countries (CEECs), Poland, Romania, Lithuania

Mariusz Kowalski [], Instytut Geografii i Przestrzennego Zagospodarowania im. S. Leszczyckiego PAN


APA: Kowalski, M. (2023). Trwałość przestrzennego zróżnicowania zachowań wyborczych w krajach Europy Środkowo-Wschodniej. Przegląd Geograficzny, 95(1), 57-83.
MLA: Kowalski, Mariusz. "Trwałość przestrzennego zróżnicowania zachowań wyborczych w krajach Europy Środkowo-Wschodniej". Przegląd Geograficzny, vol. 95, no. 1, 2023, pp. 57-83.
Chicago: Kowalski, Mariusz. "Trwałość przestrzennego zróżnicowania zachowań wyborczych w krajach Europy Środkowo-Wschodniej". Przegląd Geograficzny 95, no. 1 (2023): 57-83.
Harvard: Kowalski, M. 2023. "Trwałość przestrzennego zróżnicowania zachowań wyborczych w krajach Europy Środkowo-Wschodniej". Przegląd Geograficzny, vol. 95, no. 1, pp. 57-83.