After eight years of conservative rule in Poland, a liberal government is back in power. What does it mean for young Poles?
What does the end of an eight-year conservative government mean for young people in Poland?
“It feels like a breath of fresh air,” says 22-year-old Lena from Gdansk, one of Poland’s major cities. “The last eight years felt like watching some dystopian, surrealist series.”
The Law and Justice party took power in 2015 and has been steadily targeting women’s, immigrants’ and LGBTQ+ rights. It managed to get the majority of votes mainly due to the 2015 Mediterranean Sea refugee crisis, by playing on fears of people from Muslim-majority countries ‘flooding the nation’.
Since then, foreign press headlines about Poland have mainly revolved around the party’s initiatives which included overtaking the Supreme Court of Poland, banning abortion, creating the so-called LGBTQ-free zones and holding migrants at the Belarusian border – resulting in the deaths of many people.
A winning coalition of the three parties, two of them centrist and one left-wing, owes its victory to people like Lena – young, educated, urban and creative,
Lena belongs to one of the main social groups that voted the populist government out. Studying Polish philology, she is particularly passionate about theatre.
She said that there have been cases of Law and Justice party politicians trying to censor plays that weren’t in accordance with their views by cutting funding to directors and institutions.
“Of course, if they tried doing that to famous and recognised directors, those directors would alert the media. In those cases, their censorship attempts were unsuccessful. But if they tried to censor an up-and-coming director from a small-town theatre, that’s a whole different story.”
Censorship attempts, which Poland has not seen since 1989, were sprinkled with endless state-funded film and arts projects of doubtful artistic value at an expensive cost.
After the election results had been announced, Dorota Maslowska, one of the most recognised writers in the country, jokingly demanded reparations on her Facebook page:
“Alright, joy is one thing, but these eight years of ‘monsterocracy’ were really long; it got on everyone’s nerves. I want to talk right away about some compensation and reparations. For example, I believe that the Minister of Culture, Piotr Gliński, should get an account on Allegro (Polish version of eBay) or stall at a bazaar and let him sell his shit films until he pays back all the 500 billion of our money he spent on them. And he would still be in a comfortable situation, considering that the end of the world is so close – fortunately, we know about it, he doesn’t.”
The films Maslowska was talking about were mostly focusing on glorifying military or religious figures from the past, all in accordance with the ‘God, Honour, Homeland’ slogan.
It is a motto which Polish right-wing groups have been using for quite a while and one that, thanks to Law and Justice Party, is printed out on every newly-issued passport in the country. Possibly not for much longer.
And although since October 2023 most left-wing, centrist as well as mildly conservative Poles show signs of relief, some are concerned that the very reason the conservative government was able to rule for so long in the first place was because of the ignorance of the more liberal political establishment that has just regained power.
After the fall of communism, the majority of Poles believed that the new, democratic and capitalist order would solve most of their issues.
Having pushed through the turbulent 90s, joining the NATO and EU brought hope for a brighter future for many Baby Boomers and early Gen X. Instead, they watches as their children were forced to emigrate to richer EU countries in order to make ends meet.
According to Beata Adryjan, a 23-year-old Sociology student from the University of Lodz, the reason Law and Justice won the elections in 2015 and 2019 was the exclusion of many groups by the elitist, as viewed by some, Civic Platform Party government that was in power from 2007 to 2015.
“Especially hard-working people from small towns and rural areas, those were the people for whom Komorowski’s ‘change your job and get a loan’ (a famous phrase said by the Polish president, Bronislaw Komorowski in 2015, just before the Law and Justice won the presidential election) felt like having their faces spat on. And they thanked him at the ballot boxes later.”
Law and Justice offered the people not only social benefits, which even the most left-wing parties in the country would not have considered at the time, but also, and perhaps most importantly, a sense of identity, dignity and national pride.
“Look at the West, look at the Germans, look at the Brits. The gays are taking over, the Muslims are taking over, we are the last bastion of the truly European, Christian values. You may laugh but there are still people in Poland who believe there are Sharia law zones in London,” Beata added.
Indeed, some headlines from TVP, a Polish national broadcaster run and funded by the Law and Justice Party, were giving impressions of the West as if they were taken straight off of Russia Today, with one major difference being their stance on Ukraine, however.
Yet despite the fact the party had the public media behind them, they still failed to persuade enough people to vote for them. And it makes Beata feel somewhat optimistic: “Even a lot of old people, many of whom don’t have access do cable networks voted against them. They know what propaganda is, they’d seen it before.”
Although Lena feels the same too, there are still a lot of doubts lurking behind her head.
“I’m not delusional, I know there’s many things that the new government won’t solve. Like the reproductive rights issue, they were promising a lot to make women go vote for them but I honestly think they’re going to succumb to the Church’s pressure.”
Reproductive rights have been a subject of heated public debate in Poland since the tightening of the abortion law in 1994, when the termination of pregnancy became legal only in four cases: rape, incest, a health/life threat to pregnant person or fetal anomalies.
In 2020, the highly politicised Supreme Court of Poland ruled that the abortion for malformed fetuses was unconstitutional and banned it, sparking mass protests across the country.
The liberalisation of the abortion law is now more than likely to come. However, it is still vague how far the new government is willing to take it. For many Polish people, including Lena and Beata, the law from before 2020 was still not liberal enough.
Then there is the issue of the LGBTQ+ community, still one of the most discriminated-against groups in the country. Lena feels like this was the issue that was not addressed enough during the election campaign by the majority of the parties.
According to Beata, the new government will not have an easy job: the hopes are high, the expectations even higher, and there are a lot of people with even more views to please.
When asked what hopes they have for their future, both Beata and Lena give very similar answers.
“I would like to be able to live in a normal, civilised country with everyone feeling safe and included. I don’t want to worry about what the government is gonna do next, which imagined enemy they will come up to scare your grandparents with next. I just wanna live my life in peace.”
Lena’s answer is a bit more direct: “I just wanna live my fucking life. Maybe I’ll be able to a little bit more now.”
Featured image by Zuza Gałczyńska via Unsplash