Poland’s generational shift

Krzysztof Bobinski
1 November 2007

The euphoric mood still lingers in Poland, especially in the major cities like Warsaw which voted so decisively on 21 October 2007 to get rid of the traditionalist Law & Justice (PiS) party government and its leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski. "It was like 1989 all over again", said one art-gallery owner savouring the moment once again a week later. "The internet fora were buzzing with talk of politics that night", she recalls exultantly, "even the apolitical chat groups like the golf enthusiasts".

Krzysztof Bobinski works at the Unia & Polska Foundation, a pro-European NGO in Warsaw. He was the Financial Times's correspondent in Warsaw.

Also by Krzysztof Bobinski in openDemocracy:

"Poland's populist caravan" (14 July 2006)

" The Polish confusion" (22 June 2007)

"A stork's eye view from Poland" (May 2001)

"Poland's nervous ‘return' to Europe" (April 2004)

"Democracy in the European Union, more or less" (July 2005)

"The European Union's Turkish dilemma" (December 2005)

"Hungary's 1956, central Europe's 2006: beyond illusion" (27 October 2006)

"European unity: reality and myth" (21 March 2007)

The election victory of the pro-business Civic Platform (PO) lifted the gloom which for the past two years of PiS government had enveloped those in Poland who had hoped that European Union entry in 2004 would throw open the doors to a modern, outward-looking society.

The reaction was matched on the other side: Lech Kaczynski, the president and the outgoing prime minister's twin brother, refused for almost a week to comment on the result. The memory of this sullen silence will probably be enough to demolish Lech Kaczynski's chances of re-election as president in 2010.

After the euphoria, however, there must be a touch of caution. It should be remembered that the PO's victory - on a high (in terms of recent Polish history) 55% turnout and a 42% share of the poll - was due as much to a desire to get rid of the incumbents as to any deep conviction that their opponents represented a significant improvement in the quality of the politicians who will now be leading Poland (see Neal Ascherson, "Poland after PiS: handle with care", 26 October 2007).

For as the PO worked on putting together a coalition government with the rural-based Polish Peasants' Party (PSL), three salient facts of the election campaign showed that the future could bring surprises for the new government.

The election's runes

The first is that the issue of corruption was at the centre of the contest, activating citizens who had not voted in the previous election in September 2005. The PiS constantly reiterated that it had been relentless in fighting corruption and would continue to do so if re-elected. The PO acknowledged that corruption was a major problem but that the methods employed by the PiS were reprehensible. These included a disregard for the autonomy of institutions and more than a whiff of suspicion that the PiS was targeting its political opponents rather than actual or potential wrongdoers.

The result showed that a majority of the electors agreed with the PO. But this party - led by the youthful if lacklustre Donald Tusk - has never been very strong on the need to combat corruption. If it lets the issue slip from its agenda now that it has achieved power, then the PiS (whose 32% of the vote makes it the largest opposition party) will surely remind voters of the fact - and it will be eagerly listened to.

The second fact is the economic background of the election. Poland's high annual economic growth (around 6% in the past two years), whose effects include falling unemployment and rising wages, helped to bolster the PiS's electoral performance. Indeed, a government presiding over such figures should never have lost an election.

The key point here is that the PO should enjoy such results for another year or two. It will also begin to oversee the inflow in 2007-13 of European Union funds worth €67 billion ($97 billion), as well significant remittances from the hundreds of thousands of Poles working abroad. If the PO-PSL government sets in train a coherent programme involving cost-cutting public-spending reforms, privatisation and more foreign investment, the boom could continue through its four-year term and deliver an election victory in 2011. If it does nothing then the economy will slow and the new coalition's chances of re-election diminish.

The third fact, and the most important, is the generational factor in the Polish campaign. This is something which the politicians seem not to have noticed, yet it has great implications for politics in coming years - not only in Poland but also in the other post-Soviet states.

openDemocracy writers track Polish politics and governance:

* Neal Ascherson, "The victory and defeat of Solidarność" (6 September 2005)

* Adam Szostkiewicz, "The Polish lifeboat" (22 September 2005)

* Karolina Gniewowska, "The Polish minefield" (23 September 2005)

* Marek Kohn, "Poland's beacon for Europe" (25 October 2005)

* Neal Ascherson, "Catholic Poland's anguish" (11 January 2007)

* Neal Ascherson, "Ryszard Kapuscinski: from Poland to the world" (25 January 2007)

* Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "The Polish dictionary" (22 August 2007)

* Ivan Krastev, "Sleepless in Sczeczin: what's the matter with Poland?" (19 October 2007)

* Neal Ascherson, "Poland after PiS: handle with care" (26 October 2007)

The factor can be measured in numerical terms, by the unprecedented mobilisation of young people who had failed to turn out in such numbers in previous elections. They did so this time not because they saw much intrinsic value in the politicians they were voting for but because they sensed that PiS's traditionalist, xenophobic approach in domestic and foreign policy marked a big threat to their future as citizens of a normal European country in a normal Europe. Until now many young people unhappy with the ways things were going under the PiS have "voted with their feet" and left Poland to find work in (especially) Britain or Ireland. A large number of them visited the embassies and consulates in their new domicile to vote in the election against the PiS. But their contemporaries who have stayed at home, hitherto uninterested in politics, also chose to register their concern through the ballot-box.

But this generational factor can also be measured in terms of the political and social transformation it represents. The even greater historic significance of this moment is that an 18-year-old first-time voter on 21 October 2007 would have been born after 4 June 1989, the date of the election which put paid to communist rule in Poland for ever. That person will have been brought up and educated in conditions of complete freedom of speech, freedom of travel, in a functioning parliamentary democracy, in a sovereign country and with access to goods in the shops limited only by their parents' incomes, a job market and attendant unemployment. In a word these young people, and each year there will be more of them, have been living in an entirely different country from their elders.

A history in contraflow

For this new set of young Poles, the legitimacy which the current set of politicians draw on is becoming irrelevant. Such cyclical change, and the conflict between generations that accompanies it, is routine - but it is exceptional that a society contains successive generations with such entirely different starting-points. It does happen in, for example, post-colonial countries where those born after independence come to adulthood; and something similar happened in Germany in 1968, when the post-war generation reacted violently to its parents' and grandparents' silence about their pre-war and wartime experiences (see Ivan Krastev, "Sleepless in Sczeczin: what's the matter with Poland?", 19 October 2007).

The election has begun to reveal the singular consequences of this phenomenon in Poland. Most notable is that the legitimacy which politicians on both sides of the divide derive from their record in the struggle against communism is becoming an abstraction. This election showed that they don't know it yet. In the heat of a televised debate, the PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski called the PO's Donald Tusk the Czeslaw Kiszczak of our time. Tusk shot back with the taunt that Kaczynski was behaving like Jerzy Urban. For anyone over 45 the exchange was immediately recognisable. Kiszczak was minister of the interior when martial law was introduced in December 1981 to crush the anti-communist Solidarity movement; Urban was the talented if cynical propagandist of the martial-law regime. The 18-year-old would have to ask who these people were. That is if she or he was at all interested. For young Poles, such names are ancient history.

This new generation has yet to articulate its detailed concerns and its leaders have yet to emerge. However the election has showed its force, and the ballot-box gave the new generation an instrument to wield that force. Poland is the first of the post-Soviet countries where young people have shown that they don't want their elders to blight their future with their complexes about the outside world and their anachronistic feuds.

This new self-confident generation is also present in the other post-Soviet European Union member-states and it should exert a benign influence on their futures. There are great numbers of young people in places like Moldova, Ukraine and Russia who will also make their presence felt. But - and here too a touch of caution is appropriate - without the framework of the European Union and its accompanying feeling of security, their choices may be more authoritarian than that of their contemporaries inside the EU. In Poland's recent election, young people in particular rejected the paranoid view of the world represented by the PiS. That may not be true further to the east.

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