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Will Polish students step up and seize their opportunity?

Polish students have remained aloof from politics over the past years. The current political situation might bring about a change in this situation.

Young people played an important role in the recent Black protests. PAimages/Wiktor Dabkowski. All rights reserved.

The end of the year in Poland was marked by anti-government protests. Opposition MPs occupied the plenary hall of the parliament with protesters blockading the building outside. The parliamentary crisis that erupted was a successive conflict caused by the Law and Justice (PiS) government's ambitions to subjugate the country's institutional framework.

When parliament reconvened in January, the standoff remained factually unresolved, but the opposition suspended its actions while the government pressed through its contested bills. PiS' chairman, Jarosław Kaczyński, had managed to outmanoeuvre the opposition which, to make matters worse, was also hit by two scandals of its own making.

Following this latest confrontation, polls indicate the government still retains strong support, more than the parliamentary opposition. But other polls also show half of Poles in favour of continuing anti-government protests. In short, the crisis in Poland continues.

So far though, with the exception of the Black Protest, the opposition to the government had been mired by the absence of youth. But now things might be about to change as Polish students are organising a national protest of their own. The appearance of youth in opposition to the government could help break the political deadlock.

The apparent apathy of student youth

During the communist era Polish students had been quite active politically and played a role in bringing about the demise of the regime in 1989. In the quarter century that followed, however, students disappeared from the political scene seemingly sinking into an apathetic slumber.

The only significant youth protests in this period were the anti-ACTA protests and the sometimes-violent demonstrations of nationalist youth, but these were not solely student affairs. The so-called 'Engaged University', the largest student protest movement that emerged during the transformation period, mobilised between 100-200 protesters in 2015.

This apathy was somewhat of an academic question usually only drawing the attention of researchers. In 2011, the then Civic Platform (PO) government issued a comprehensive report on youth. It presented a rather bleak picture of the social-economic realities for young people. However, the government did not enact measures to improve the situation.

"A year or year-and-a-half ago I couldn't have imagined that I would get so engaged in politics, but I can't watch what is going on any longer."

Recent research has shown that Polish students indeed feel that the political class does not address their problems. Though they tend to show a higher-than-average voter turnout, they see anti-establishment parties as representing their interests best. Students' mistrust of the political elites runs high and one of the failings of Polish democracy after 1989 has been the low active participation of youth in politics.

Why students suddenly want to protest

The reason why some students want to protest now is simple. They have had enough. They are angry with the government and disappointed with the opposition. The events in and around the parliament were the straw that broke the camel's back. The idea originated with a small group of students in Wrocław.

One of the initiators, Mary Iwanicka, recalls that "the thought came to me while watching television after the end of the semester, on 16 December. Seeing how people were getting embittered, I reckoned this was the right time for young people to finally show that they have the right to speak up for themselves. I got in touch with Natalia Kwaśnicka, the other initiator, who was involved in organising the Black Protest here with a lot of success."

Other students, corresponding via facebook, soon followed suit. They found common ground since they feel their personal futures are at stake as a result of the direction the country has been heading in over the past year. This feeling particularly holds true for students who had not taken part in previous anti-government protests.

"Certainly each of the organisers has their own specific reasons, but I think that the situation, the culmination of every bad thing PiS has done, has caused it. A year or year-and-a-half ago I couldn't have imagined that I would get so engaged in politics, but I can't watch what is going on any longer", another organiser, Łukasz Sakowski, stresses.

The students' protest and demands

The students are planning their actions as a 'national protest' on 25 January. Rallies are set to be organised in large and middle-sized academic centres throughout the country in Wrocław, Poznań, Kraków, Katowice, Gdańsk, Warsaw, Toruń, Opole, Lublin, Łódź, and Szczecin - as well as in Brussels. The officially declared turnout expectations vary from 300 to 1,000 participants depending on the venue.

The students are adamant about these events being a grassroots demonstration and expression of their grievances. In their manifesto, they have openly and explicitly distanced themselves from all political parties and opposition movements. Hence, the student activists have called for no political or organisational logos to be carried during their protest actions.

The manifesto also includes a concrete list of demands, drafted after consultations between the different academic centres. The students are calling for respect for the rule of law, academic freedom, independence of the media, reproductive rights, protection against violence, freedom of assembly, gender and minority rights, environmental protection policies, an end to political cronyism, separation of Church and state, and a halt to policies that are damaging Poland internationally and vis-à-vis the European Union.

What to expect

So far the students' initiative has been met with support from faculty and has been endorsed by the largest Teacher's Union which itself is gearing up for a general strike against the government's plans for educational reform.

Though students in some academic centres have reacted positively to the call for protest, it is hard to predict what the actual turnout will be. "Unfortunately, most people connect to us through facebook and that's a very unreliable source. We can't say how many people support us and see a possibility of producing change, and how many just clicked 'going'," Iwanicka comments.

But if students do show up in sufficient numbers, the organisers hope their protest will get noticed. "We're a grassroots movement from below, so we have to start from scratch. As for the protest itself, then apart from the aim to motivate young people to act, we would hope the current government will react. So far mainly middle-aged people have been protesting. If young people will join in, then PiS will increasingly start to fear the loss of possible voters," echoes Sakowski.

There have already been some reactions, and even obstacles to overcome. Several student councils in Poznań distanced themselves from the planned protest citing divisions in the student community. There, one organiser's facebook account was hacked causing some disruption. In Lublin, an anonymous person registered several simultaneous rallies which blocked the students' preferred protest locations. Meanwhile, PiS' notorious MP Krystyna Pawłowicz launched a vile public attack on the students and faculty who support them accusing them of treason.

It remains to be seen what will happen on 25 January and what the turnout for the protest will be. If students do show up in numbers that match or exceed the organisers' official projected estimates, it would surely strengthen the challenge to the current government. It would also serve as a wake-up call to the other political parties not to continue neglecting the problems of students and youth.

About the author

Tom Junes is a historian and post-doctoral researcher focusing on protest movements in eastern Europe. He is a member of the Human and Social Studies Foundation Sofia and currently a visiting fellow at European University Institute in Florence, Italy. He is the author of Student Politics in Communist Poland: Generations of Consent and Dissent.

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