Sunday

17th Oct 2021

Opinion

Nationwide protests reveal awakening of Poland's youth

  • An abortion demonstration in Poland's second city, Krakow, in October. In fact, students are also protesting in their hometowns due to the Covid-19 lockdown (Photo: Wikimedia)

What we have been seeing in Poland for the past month has been described in domestic media as a "generational rebellion which sociologists have not yet had the time to analyse".

A strike began on October 22nd, 2020 against a ruling on the near-total ban on abortion by the politicised Constitutional Tribunal.

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Ever since, people as young as 14 have been out in the streets of big cities and small towns. Media outlets from left-wing to right-wing have hailed the awakening of the youth. It contrasts, in the eyes of the public, with the long-held Polish stereotype about spoiled, uninterested and passive youth.

But this realisation only proves the deep generational divide that exists between the older generation which grew up under communism, and 'Zoomers' who have never lived in an occupied country.

They were seen as apathetic and indifferent, but this widely-held stereotype was present in people's minds - but not actually supported by studies.

A study conducted in June 2020 by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in the Visegrad countries shows that 68 percent of respondents (aged 16-29) in Poland are interested in politics and public affairs.

"I've taken part in demonstrations before, it's my civic duty, I took part in the 'Black Protests' for example", says Wiktoria, a demonstrator from Warsaw.

The 2016-2018 pro-rights movements called the 'Black Protests' were and similarly dominated by the youth.

This did not shatter the older generation's views about young people's lack of political involvement, but it did further strengthen young people's marginalisation and underrepresentation in politics.

Much like her friends and peers, Wiktoria demonstrated at times when it concerned her personally.

Young people want to defend women's reproductive rights, internet freedoms (the 2012 anti-ACTA protests), climate change (as part of Extinction Rebellion), LGBTIQ rights and systemic racism (solidarity protests after the killing of George Floyd).

"Young people want to be mobilised rather than organised," according to NDI board member governor Howard Dean

Meanwhile, the Law and Justice (PiS) government's anti-LGBTIQ policies and rhetoric, the anti-abortion laws and its controversial judicial reforms have shaped the political landscape for the past five years.

Public demonstrations have been become a familiar feature. Among young people satisfaction with Polish government has decreased since 2018.

Yet, Zoomers rarely attend anti-government rallies organised by the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD) – a movement that epitomised the anti-PiS movement.

The average age of demonstrators at the KOD rallies was 49.7.

The impact of Covid-19 on the scale, demography and length of current protests cannot be underestimated.

Newspapers have hailed them "the biggest demonstrations since the fall of communism in 1989". They are taking place in over 150 cities and towns in Poland, 90 percent of which have less than 50,000 inhabitants.

Students protest in home villages

Students are protesting in their hometowns because they cannot attend physical classes in the bigger cities. Ironically, the frustration caused by the lockdown strengthened their appetite for rebellion.

The pandemic has increased young people's interest in politics and public affairs, as the NDI study found. Almost half of the respondents declared that the government measures proposed to stop the spread of Covid-19 were too extensive and unduly threatening to the functioning of the economy.

They feel that the government has favoured the older generation at the expense of the youth. Now more than ever they are concerned about their future professional and economic situation because of the pandemic.

The greatest risk for severe illness from Covid-19 may be among those aged 85 or older but it will have an even greater impact on the future of young people.

The impact of the pandemic on youth attitudes was already visible during the June 2020 presidential election: 67 percent of 18-29-year-olds voted, more voters than in other age groups.

Despite the threat of prosecution, the ban on mass gatherings and the danger of transmitting Covid-19, Zoomers are still out in the streets.

The media debunked the Polish stereotype about spoiled, uninterested and passive youth and embraced the youth's political coming of age.

But their failure to notice their previous engagement brings to light the major misunderstanding: young people raise their voices on topics that matter to them (women's rights, ACTA, LGBTQ, climate) and political parties have failed to address their needs.

In the last election, their votes followed an almost entirely uniform distribution with the main four candidates receiving around 20 percent each.

This shows that political parties are yet to tap into this pool of voters.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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