Can Europe Make It?

We don't talk about politics in Poland

Marzena Sadowska
31 March 2014

In preparing to write about apathy, I took a look at the statistics. I knew that lack of political engagement was a problem in Poland, but I wasn’t aware of the scale - it is frighteningly big.

Since the transition from communism to democracy, the highest turnout in parliamentary elections was in 1989 - the first free elections. Even then it was surprisingly low, only 62%. It has continued to fall and currently it’s at about 40-45%. The exception here is the European Parliament elections, the first (2004) with 20,87% turnout, the second (2009) – 24,53%.

Why does it look so bad? We are a young democracy; shouldn’t we be very optimistic about our current political system? Apparently we are not. We distrust our politicians, we regard politics very cynically and, I think, we doubt that we can change anything. This, I believe, sums up the problem of apathy in Polish politics. We, the people, don’t trust that we have the tools and capability for change. Why are we so disappointed? Is it our historical experience? Is it some sort of general distrust for political institutions? Or, simply, it is the fact that we do not see our influence on politicians and politics?

I’d say it is the last case, or at least mostly that. There are many reasons and many problems mixed in here, but this one stands out to me. To some degree we can blame the political history of Poland, long-term experience of having no impact on politics - but today there is a whole generation of people who don’t remember communism. And these people don’t vote either.

There isn’t a well developed civil society in Poland. Political parties are not trusted, but NGOs aren’t seen as reliable either. I hope that the second thing is going to change, and maybe it is, especially when it comes to Polish NGOs (on one hand: another one became widely recognisable in recent months, on the other – the face of the best known one is subjected to a witch hunt every year).

This, I think, could be solved in a big part by good PR. I was told once that the NGOs see themselves as above that kind of thing, which in my opinion is quite a big mistake on their part. Their names and logos are often completely unknown, people don’t know what they do and whom they help. Even if someone is interested and is actively looking for information, it’s often not as easy as it should be.

The second part of the problem is education. I’m not the biggest fan of the educational system in Poland. Looking back at my middle and high school years, I see a lot of potential and time wasted. In my curriculum there was the subject of social science – this is where I learned about Montesquieu and about the separation of powers and the origins of the parliamentary system. I didn’t learn much about my rights and about what can I do (as a citizen of Poland and the European Union, as a voter). I’m sure that learning about what can I do here and now would be more profitable than learning about the history of political systems.

I’m personally not a very politically active person - I’ve never entertained the idea of joining a political party. I’m not even used to labelling my own political views: I know what is important to me, I know that I am not well represented on the Polish political stage, but that’s about it. I don’t know who many of my friends vote for – it’s blatantly obvious to me that it’s impolite to ask about it, so I don’t. Do I really care about it? Would I sever friendships because of different political views? I don’t know, it’s hard to say. We don’t talk about it.

Sometimes we complain about what we don’t like, but we do it carefully, so as not to cross lines, not to offend each other. One of the many surprises for me in Turkey was this: young people I’ve met there seemed to really care about politics and what is more, they seemed to really identify with political parties. In Poland, I don’t think I know anyone my age who would identify themselves with a party’s political line. Come to think of it, I don’t think I personally know anyone who is in a political party, period.

From time to time, I volunteer, I take part in seminars, I attend conferences. All of this is relatively new, it started when I was at university and at the beginning I had no clue about what in this whole thing interested me. It’s hard to figure it out on your own, especially when you don’t really know the possibilities. As it happens, politics (to some extent) interests me academically and I care about human rights. Many people don’t have deep interest in these topics, so, logically, they don’t pursue it. And then they don’t vote, because what would they vote for?

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