Izabela Zawartka discusses the correlation between the failure of a promising political party in Poland and the political disengagement of the youth.
In recent years, it has become a trend among young Polish students to pursue higher education abroad. This mass emigration in search of professional opportunity is largely reflective of a greater political mood in Poland, exemplified by the rise and fall of Nowoczesna.
Translating directly to “Modern” in English, Nowoczesna is a Polish political party founded in the run up to the 2015 parliamentary election, in response to the failings of the incumbent Platforma Obywatelska (PO) to meet its constituents’ economic and social demands. Created in the vision of former World Bank economist, Ryszard Petru, its centrist ideology, advocacy for economic liberalism, and progressive social policy made it popular among the youth as an opposition to the rise of conservatism. Yet, despite early successes, Nowoczesna’s role in Polish politics is nearly finished.
Following a sharp decline in his popularity over a series of scandals and mistakes, Petru’s resignation from the party in July of this year has made the party’s prospects for electoral victory appear grim. The fall of Nowoczesna poses greater problems for the future of Poland; the feeling of disenfranchisement that it creates among the youth furthers their desire to emigrate in the search of education and professional opportunities. This, in turn, creates a vicious cycle, in which the political disengagement of the youth paves the way for the populist party Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc (PiS) to act unopposed.
Before 2015, Platforma Obywatelska had been in power since 2007 when it was founded by a group of politicians including Donald Tusk, the current President of the European Council. Though it did contribute significantly to Poland’s economic progress over this period, it eventually grew lazy and failed to adjust to political change. Unable to keep up with constituents’ demands, it lost support – opening a political vacuum. The result was twofold: a rise in support for PiS and the formation and incredible success of Nowoczesna in 2015. Though Nowoczesna won only 7.6% of the vote in the parliamentary elections as compared with PiS’ 37.6%, the fact that a party formed in April could reach so many people in just 6 months was ground-breaking.
Speaking with my friends and family in Poland showed me just how powerful Nowoczesna could be. There was a sense of excitement around the creation of this party: a fascination with their political platform and a belief that the enthusiastic Petru would finally enact change. Some of my parents’ friends even became party members. The movement was not afraid to take on PiS, which was both bigger and stronger. Television appearances and bold public statements won respect because they created space for debate against PiS’ controversial decisions. Moreover, with its organization of street protests, Nowoczesna empowered its constituents and, significantly, provided the youth with a way to become involved.
Yet, Nowoczesna was never fully able to blossom. A series of technical issues caused by the party’s lack of experience have contributed to its slow decline. Shortly after the 2015 election, incorrect reporting of campaign funding resulted in a 2 million zloty (about £400,000) fine and a loss of the 6 million zloty (more than a million pounds) subsidy from the government, leaving the party in huge debt. Moreover, in early in 2017, Nowoczesna lost credibility when Petru failed to attend an important parliamentary meeting regarding a budget crisis. The crises reached their peak this summer with Petru’s replacement as leader. Coupled with a popularisation of conservative and protectionist ideas rejecting its modern outlook, the party has been unable to retain its previously high approval among the Polish population. Though the political platform remains the same, the lack of support for those it represents means that Nowoczesna’s policies no longer have a voice.
Without political opposition, and a significant majority in both houses of parliament, PiS is free to pursue whatever path it likes. Just this summer, they have engaged in a campaign to reduce the retirement age of judges in order to appoint those who better align with their views. Their lack of respect for laws passed by the European Union, including breaches of human rights (efforts to ban abortion outright, for example), have become notorious worldwide. Today, my friends and family are no longer optimistic. In their eyes, Polish politics has become hopeless. The couple who joined Nowoczesna have recently withdrawn their membership; in fact, they have just sent their son to a university in the United States. Nearly all of my cousins and their classmates are looking to do the same.
The massive feeling of disenfranchisement among young voters is extremely dangerous for the future. With the educated youth leaving Poland, or simply withdrawing from the political sphere, there will remain no one to press for positive change. This dark and ironic cycle, in which young people feel powerless to enacting meaningful change and thus become inactive in doing so, is not unique to Poland. It is a broader, more complicated issue that affects global politics.
The short life of Nowoczesna illustrates just how difficult it is to break the barrier between having a platform and translating it through to policy. More importantly, however, it proves just how important the existence of political parties representing the ideas of the youth are to political involvement in general. If someone disengages when they are young, it may be difficult, if not impossible, to convince them to re-engage later on.
This emigration does, however, have potential to help bring Poland back from the brink. The youth who gain valuable political and social insights in their experiences abroad will be equipped to come back and advocate for greater changes at home. If they do choose to return, their global outlook could bring Poland back on its path towards globalisation, modernity, and meaningful political progress.