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Europe

Poland's youth is key as election looms

Poland's young voters are disillusioned with the ruling pro-European liberals. That's the main reason why the liberals are likely to be unseated by the conservatives. Rafal Kiepuszewski reports from Warsaw.

Until recently, the conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) chiefly relied on older voters, those who believed the EU did not have answers to all of Poland's problems. Traditionally it could also count on younger voters who thought society should be based on Christian foundations. One of them is 32-year-old Warsaw postgraduate student Kamil, who reckons the conservatives are the only party protecting moral and ethical values. "As a father of a one-year-old I'm in favor of their family-oriented program, which promises young families subsidies," he told DW, referring to a PiS promise of a 500 zloty (100 euros) benefit per child.

Copyright: DW/Rafal Kiepuszewski,

The PiS is becoming more attractive to younger voters

But pro-European Poles, especially those who have made a success of themselves in the country's market transformations, view the PiS with concern. In power between 2005 and 2007, it was criticized for being fractious, inward-looking, prickly in relations with neighboring countries and suspicious of business. Liberal party (PO) voters such as middle-aged Warsaw teacher Agata are afraid of a PiS comeback. "I remember they pushed their values down our throats. They tried to control everything, from education to the media," she told DW.

PiS makeover

Yet, eight years on, opinion polls give the conservatives a lead of up to 13 percent over the liberals. Analysts say this means that many younger Poles are now looking toward PiS for solutions. To attract them, the controversial leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has given up the front seat to pragmatic Beata Szydlo, who is tipped for the post of prime minister. Her election slogan, "We'll change Poland for the better," is in sync with those who feel that after two terms in government, the liberals have failed to deliver on their promises of more jobs and higher living standards.

Copyright: DW/Rafal Kiepuszewski,

The PO has been the major coalition partner since 2007

Twenty-seven-year-old Kasia, a nurse at a Warsaw clinic, says her hospital has changed a lot in recent years. It is well equipped now, and care is provided by well-qualified personnel. But Kasia says health care is run "erratically." She blames the ruling party for inconsistency and short-sightedness. "Instead of getting shorter, waiting lists are getting longer because clinics are expected to minimize costs. Nurses like me have been on strike recently. Our wages are perhaps the lowest in the EU. This isn't healthy. It's time for change," Kasia says, echoing the PiS slogan.

'Junk' contracts and protest vote

Support for the liberals is waning even in their former bastions, such as Warsaw's Sluzewiec business park, which teems with ambitious young IT specialists and market analysts. Lukasz, 29, a call-center consultant, is unhappy that at his firm no one has a full-time contract. They all work as part-timers with no social security and no pension rights. "It's difficult for me to get a mortgage because of my junk contract. There are no trade unions I could turn to. It's ironic, considering that Solidarity, Eastern Europe's first free trade union, was born here," Lukasz says.

Young Poles like Lukasz are following the election campaign on social media. They tend to trust their favorite bloggers more than they do mainstream political commentators.

One popular site is Aszdziennik, a satirical blog poking fun at Polish politics left, right and center. Before a key TV debate between Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz and her rival Beata Szydlo, the blog's wry headline claimed that both politicians asked for a postponement, "because they didn't learn their views by heart in time," a stab at their frequent about-turns in the campaign.

Copyright: DW/Rafal Kiepuszewski,

Social media are a popular source of information for young Poles

According to Rafal Madajczak, who runs the blog, its readers believe the liberals have lost their luster, that they are boring and out of touch. "For young people, satire is a perfect way of voicing their protest. They're excited they managed to shake things up by voting in an unknown, Andrzej Duda, for president [a member of the PiS] last May. For them, the PiS campaign for change comes at the right place and at the right time" Madajczak told DW.

Populists galore

One of the most popular Facebook posts recently came from Krystyna Janda, the star of protest movies about Stalinist terror, such as "Interrogation," which was shot in communist Poland after the rise of Solidarity in 1980. She described her conversation with a young mobile phone salesman who knew nothing about the films she starred in - films that defined a generation - and only vaguely recalled what Solidarity was about. Janda was shocked. She is not the only one with misgivings about the younger generation's state of mind.

Remigiusz Grzela, one of Poland's most promising young writers, believes that successive governments have neglected education and culture over the past 25 years, to the point that a younger generation of Poles are now preoccupied with consumerism and lack a broader perspective. "There's no healthy civil society which has developed without a solid foundation of culture. This narrows the public discourse. Young people often have problems with independent thinking, because they read few books. The end result is they fall prey to populists," Grzela told DW.

There is no shortage of those in the campaign, from the anti-immigrant and pro-Russian, far-right Korwin party to the anarchic Kukiz 15 grouping led by an aging rock star. With many voters still undecided, it is anyone's guess how exotic Poland's next coalition government might be, or whether, indeed, PiS manages to rule on its own.