Sunday

18th Feb 2018

Opinion

Young Poles can halt Kaczynski’s illiberal march

  • Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of the ruling Law and Justice party. Young Poles have shown that they do have the potential to impact the fate of their country. (Photo: Wikipedia.org)

Poland’s youngest generations have normally been the biggest group absent from pro-democratic marches.

With a notable exception of last year’s Black Marches, against tightening the anti-abortion law, young Poles remained largely reluctant to act publicly.

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But that has changed greatly with the recent wave of demonstrations against plans by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, led by former prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, to seize control of the judicial system.

Introducing the three bills would end the terms of sitting judges of the Supreme Court and allow their replacements to be hand-picked by the ruling party; give the parliament control over the National Council of the Judiciary, a formerly independent institution in charge of appointing judges; and transfer control of the lower courts to the justice minister.

In other words, if all three bills were to enter into force, it would make PiS’s Zbigniew Ziobro the justice minister, prosecutor general and acting head of Supreme Court all at once. So much for the separation of powers.

During the latest wave of marches, age made little difference among the protesters for the first time since PiS rose to power in late 2015. Young Poles joined the opposition crowd and significantly contributed to putting pressure on president Andrzej Duda to veto two of the controversial bills.

One-off surge?

However, was this a one-off civic upsurge of an inherently passive, anti-civic generation? At least this is the way that the cohort born after Poland's transition into democracy has been labelled by many.

Evidence (and hope), however, seems to point to the contrary - that the young are here to stay and act. Maybe even going as far as ushering in a real change to Poland’s political scene.

Young people anywhere are, of course, far from a homogeneous social cohort. However, there is an important feature that binds most of them together, other than their dates of birth, namely: collective social experiences. And for the Poles born around the 1989 democratic transition, these were far from rosy and comfortable.

Although Poland has consistently been portrayed as a poster child for successful democratic transition, young Poles have experienced little of that success.

With an oversupply of individuals with master's degrees, the domestic labour market has not been able to live up to their expectations - as of 2017, nearly every second Pole has a masters degree. This means that they have struggled to build their dream reality of living in a prosperous, modern society.

Paired with a shortage of affordable housing (Poland nearly nearly has the lowest rank in the EU for the number of apartments per 1000 inhabitants), an epidemic of zero-hour contracts, and insufficient welfare policies, the younger generations in Poland largely felt like outsiders to the post-transitional success narrative.

Disenchanted youth

It should therefore come as no surprise that when PiS ushered in its plan to dismantle Polish democracy, the young did not come to its rescue.

Most importantly, they were short of a symbolic connection with the post-transitional reality. For many, independent of their viewpoints, the political game of the Third Republic has never been their game.

Hostility towards the post-transitional political class is, for most of them, a native attitude.

Poland’s party politics after 1989 has been run continuously by familiar faces. A political party whose roots did not stem from the 1989 Round Table agreements never won more than 12 percent of the vote in general elections.

The country never produced a symbolic closure of the transitional period either. There are no public holidays marking the events of democratisation, while parties are so divided as to their interpretation that almost every commemorative event is repealed by a counter-commemoration.

With constant references to post-communism and unsettled issues of lustration and vetting, large parts of the Polish youth feel disconnected from domestic politics.

Why, then, did they decide to take to the streets this time? There is no single reason, but some of them are visible.

Differences this time

First, the protests were organised with the "no logo" principle, which means that any partisan symbols and speeches were met with instant hostility.

Moreover, these demonstrations stood in defence of universal values, such as the independence of judiciary and tripartite division of powers, not particular people or institutions like the public media or the Constitutional Tribunal.

Eventually, the youth felt these could actually become their protests. Young Poles dismissed the previous demonstrations, organised by the Committee for the Defence of Democracy, as they perceived them to be just an emanation of nostalgia for the pre-PiS reality.

Now they seem to have taken over ownership. Instead of partisan emblems, they identify themselves with social media initiatives. Analyses show that protesters produced as many as four different hashtags with a range exceeding one million users. One could say the protest became 'a fashionable thing'.

And, contrary to popular belief, the Law and Justice party is not as popular among right-wing youth as it was in 2015. In fact, the nationalists repeatedly chant in their marches that PiS is no less post-communist then the previous government, Civic Platform.

A poll by Kantar Public and the Institute of Public Affairs, from March 2017, showed that although the majority (66 percent) of Poles aged 15 to 24 define their views as right or centre-right wing, only 13 percent of them would vote for PiS.

Illustratively, the three parties that came ahead of PiS in the poll - Kukiz’15, Freedom Party and the Modern Party - are all of non-transitional origin.

Over the last few weeks, young Poles have shown that they do have the potential to impact the fate of their country. Yet, whether they will have a prolonged will to do so remains to be seen. But if the answer to that question is positive, then it might signal a change in the post-transitional partisan order.

And - let us not forget - the Law and Justice party is inherently a part of this order.

Mateusz Mazzini is a sociologist affiliated with University College London and Polish Academy of Sciences.

EU Commission sets red lines for Poland on Article 7

The EU executive expects Warsaw to halt the judiciary reform and address concerns over the rule of law, and not to force out supreme court judges, or else the sanctions procedure will start.

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