Poland

Who is Poland? Political Critique meets youth supporters of the government

Dawid Krawczyk reports on 20-somethings in the ruling party of Poland.

Gosia from Warsaw joined PiS because she is fascinated by the President of Poland, Andrzej Duda. Karol from Wrocław trusts the party and its chairman, Mr. Kaczyński. Magdalena from Bielsko-Biała gets up at 4am to work for the ruling party’s “Good Change.” Dawid Krawczyk reports on 20-somethings in the ruling party of Poland.

In late May 2015, the presidential campaign in Poland was drawing to a close. “Poland can be a country that is friendly to its citizens, it can be a country where people are polite to each other, it can be a country where people live in peace and don’t have to worry,” Andrzej Duda, MEP and presidential candidate, declared on television against a backdrop of images from the campaign trail—the candidate’s bus, crowds of young people genuinely excited by the proximity of the PiS presidential hopeful.

When Duda spoke at a campaign event after the first round of voting, he was not joined on stage by either Jarosław Kaczyński or Prime Minister Beata Szydło. Instead, he was accompanied by his family and by young people decked out in t-shirts bearing his image. The average age of those on stage was much closer to Duda’s daughter, Kinga than to that of her parents. “We have to focus on whom we will elect on Sunday. I will place my faith in honesty and a good heart, because that is who my father is.” The last words spoken before the beginning of election silence came from the future president’s daughter. Balloons fell and confetti flew. Hands were raised in gestures of victory.

***

Gosia Żuk: I wanted to meet Andrzej Duda

In an apartment in Warsaw’s Ochota neighborhood, 16-year-old Gosia Żuk sat on the couch with her mother watching a Duda campaign ad. “Mom, I want to stand up there with them. I want to meet him!”

“That’s how I remember it,” she tells me three years later. She has just returned from vacation in Spain. She is in her last year of high school, and when we meet at a café on Grójecka Street in Warsaw, her thoughts are focused on the results of the secondary school exit exam, which she will receive that evening. “I used to not know anything about political youth organizations. That is, I knew that there were parties and that you could join them once you turned 18,” she says. During Duda’s campaign, she was still two years too young. “But when I saw all those young people standing behind Andrzej Duda, I began looking up who they were. And what I could do to stand there with them.”

She wrote to the party. The Thursday after the election, when the dust had barely settled after the presidential contest, Gosia was already attending her first meeting of the PiS Youth Forum.

Local elections may decide who holds what positions in everyone’s political backyard, but they are also a good indicator for upcoming contests at the national level. In 2014, PiS won across the country—by a fraction of a percent, but they did win (the election results for the regional assemblies were 26.89 percent for PiS and 26.29 percent for PO). PiS youth activists continually correct me, underlining that this was the moment when the party began its march towards power, not Duda’s victory over Bronisław Komorowski in the presidential election the following year.

Opublikowany przez Gosia Żuk Piątek, 15 maja 2015

 

In high school, Gosia stood out for her views. “I went to one of the more left-leaning high schools in Warsaw, the Cervantes School. We did not have a lot of disagreements on economic matters. I am a big supporter of PiS’s social reforms. We argued mostly about social issues.”

“For instance?”

“For instance abortion,” she answers without hesitation.

We are speaking on Monday, July 2. That evening there will be yet another pro-choice demonstration in front of the Sejm. The Polish parliament is slated to take up the “Stop abortion” draft legislation, which would limit access to legal abortion. But Gosia is not planning on going to the Sejm. She and her boyfriend, also a member of the PiS Youth Forum, are heading to a meeting with PiS candidate for the mayor of Warsaw, Patryk Jaki.

Poland’s abortion law is not working [interview]

“When the first Black March happened, I was the only person in my class who came to school. The history teacher looked at me and had no idea what to do with me. So I told him, ‘I studied, I can answer questions, I can volunteer, I did the homework,’” she says, not concealing her pride. “I got a five for my answers and extra credit for my homework, and the history teacher told everyone in the teachers’ lounge about me.”

“So what do you think Polish abortion legislation should look like?”

“To be honest, I am not a supporter of the proposed legislation. I don’t think we should alter the existing compromise. I’m worried that that would lead to tilting towards the other side. Yes, given the current situation the compromise is the safest solution,” the young PiS activist says, baffling me.

“Let’s pretend you’re a politician. Would the politician Małgorzata Żuk vote for the ‘Stop abortion’ legislation if she knew that it would not result in the liberalization of abortion laws?”

“I don’t think I would.” Gosia surprises me again, but she immediately adds that there should be a sensible discussion regarding what kind of fetal defects would justify a legal abortion.

When I ask her whether there is anything she would praise about the previous government, she thinks about it for a long time, but in the end she doesn’t give me an answer. What does she hold against PO [Civic Platform, the center-liberal party]? Education and historical policy. Six-year-olds shouldn’t be in school yet, and middle school is nothing but a source of problems. “I spent the first year just staring at the wall. We had already covered the curriculum in elementary school. The first year you come, you get to know everyone, the second year you might do something, and then the third year is focused entirely on exams, because they decide where you will go for high school. Why disrupt the continuity of education?” Gosia asks, adding, “I know people who came out of elementary school with excellent grades, model behavior, and they left middle school drinking and smoking.”

Opublikowany przez Gosia Żuk Wtorek, 2 sierpnia 2016

 

Commemorating important historical events is a significant component of Gosia’s activism. On August 1 (the beginning of the Warsaw Uprising) she sang “forbidden songs” at Piłsudski Square, on December 13 (the first day of Martial Law introduced in 1981) she held a massive Polish flag while marching down the streets of Warsaw. On the tenth of every month she comes to the Presidential Palace to commemorate the crash of the presidential plane in 2010. On 10 April 2010, a Tupolev Tu-154 aircraft of the Polish Air Force crashed near the city of Smolensk, Russia, killing all 96 people on board. Among the victims were the President of Poland Lech Kaczyński and his wife Maria. “For three years, it was easier for me to count the number of times I hadn’t come to the monthly commemoration,” she told a journalist from Wirtualna Polska a few days before the eighth anniversary of the Smolensk crash.

She personally participated in the unveiling of the monument on Piłsudski Square. “I got up early and went to Krakowskie Przedmieście to set up candles. Later I ran to school to take a math test. I finished as quickly as I could and then I went to Powązki military cemetery,” she relates.

Photo of the Smolensk Tragedy Monument on the Pilsudski Square in Warsaw

When the presidential plane crashed just outside the airport at Smolensk, Gosia was 12 years old. Her family talked about the crash a great deal at home. “No one in my family said it was an attack,” she avers, immediately adding, “but my mom said that she will always consider it highly unlikely that a president who was not exactly favorably disposed towards Moscow was flying there and just happened to crash in the middle of nowhere. No one could convince her that it was pure coincidence.”

During the unveiling of the Smolensk monument, she was so moved that she had to come back after the conclusion of the ceremony to get a good look at the statue. Like the young PiS activist, I was also at the church on Krakowskie Przedmieście at the mass commemorating the victims of the crash, and then at Powązki Cemetery, and, thanks to a badge passed on to me by a lady from far-right Gazeta Polska, I could watch the unveiling of the monument on Piłsudski Square. There I heard President Duda’s conciliatory speech and the accusatory Smolensk Requiem by the bard Paweł Piekarczyk: “We felt that Poland was one. But that lasted only for a moment. We cannot live in illusory harmony. Soon the old dispute took on strength. Bile spilled over the nation. Drunken degenerates carried the cross in empty beer cans. Someone surely paid very well for this clownish mockery of the gravity of the moment.”

“What do you think about that kind of performance?”

“It’s also part of this environment,” she answers tersely.

I ask about PiS figures whom this budding politician looks up to. Jarosław Sellin, Mariusz Kamiński, Anna Zalewska. But none of them compares to the party’s chairman Jarosław Kaczyński.

“What do you think about him?” I ask, and I immediately get the sense that I’ve said something deeply inappropriate. Gosia closes her eyes, sighs with exasperation, and replies, “We don’t even pose the question of what anyone thinks about Jarosław Kaczyński. This is the man who led to the unification of the right. He is the father of the United Right. In political terms, he is an incredible example,” she says, enumerating the merits of the party chairman in one breath.

Opublikowany przez Gosia Żuk Sobota, 7 maja 2016

 

As we’re wrapping up I ask Gosia how she evaluates President Andrzej Duda today. Her general opinion is positive, but she is not without reservations. “I resented President Duda for the degradation legislation,” she says. In March, the president vetoed a law that would have deprived people who “betrayed the Polish raison d’État” in 1943-1990 of their military ranks. “This law was important to me and I find his decision incomprehensible. It remains a mystery to me,” the PiS activist says with disappointment in her voice.

On Monday night, Gosia receives her secondary school exit exam results. “I think I don’t have to worry,” she writes to me on Facebook when I ask her about her chances of getting into university.

Karol Zaczek: Prawo i Sprawiedliwość smells of the electorate

I meet Karol Zaczek at Plac Solny in Wrocław. I told him earlier that I am from Wrocław, so Karol insists that I pick a spot. We head to Kalambur, which is probably the most lefty establishment in the city. But it is also right next to the University of Wrocław, where Karol was a student for five years, so I figure that we will both feel at home. We each order a bottle of Club Mate and get down to business.

“I became a member of Prawo i Sprawiedliwość and the Youth Forum in November 2014. It was a cold day,” he begins formally. Today, Karol is 26 years old. He comes from Świętokrzyskie Province, from Skarżysko-Kamienna. He is one exam away from finishing his law degree, but he is already working. He specializes in the protection of personal data. His first child is due in a month. A son.

Why did he report to the PiS Youth Forum on that cold November day?

“It was first and foremost a question of youthful enthusiasm,” he reminisces. “There is a saying: before you start a restaurant, you should go work in someone else’s and get an idea of how things look in the kitchen. I wanted to see how politicians live, so I signed up for the party.”

Today he is not in any rush to enter politics. First he wants to prove himself in other areas. “I once read a very wise sentence: There is no reason to open wine too early.”

What is his most significant memory connected to his PiS activism so far? “It was after we won the local government elections in 2014,” he says without a moment’s thought. “I had the pleasure of being in Strasburg. That’s where I met Andrzej Duda, who at that point was already a presidential candidate and still an MEP. I remember the impression he made on me: This is a man with class. You could see that in all of his remarks, in his behavior. We were in France and his behavior matched the gravity and the tradition inherent to that setting.”

Opublikowany przez Karol Zaczek Wtorek, 15 sierpnia 2017

 

“At that point no one thought that he could win,” I noted, trying to recall the poll numbers from the beginning of the presidential campaign. On February 16, 2015, with less than three months to go before the election, support for Bronisław Komorowski (PO candidate and then the President) stood at 63 percent, with 15 percent for Andzej Duda.

“But I already had my expectations, and I was quietly hoping for victory. He emanated an aura of positivity, class, and tact. I remember it like it was yesterday.”

Before Karol joined the party, he had a very concrete idea of what he wanted to do. “I expected to meet people, to have a mentor who could bring me into the world of politics. I imagined that I would take part in electoral campaigns, in formulating programs, I thought I would be helping people. You know, when we think about the work of a policeman or some kind of agent, we have an image of James Bond, but the reality is different: a policeman spends whole days at his desk.”

“And how much of your work for PiS was of the James Bond variety, and to what degree were you a constable?”

“I have to say it was about 90 percent James Bond. But you have to bear in mind that all young people are prone to exaggeration and want to reach great heights right away. A PiS MP once told me something very wise: it is better to go slowly along a sure path than to reach great heights very quickly, because you can fall just as quickly.”

Opublikowany przez Karol Zaczek Piątek, 27 października 2017

 

Why did Karol join this particular party? His interest in PiS began when he was in high school, but he needed some time to mature in his political convictions. In the end, a “proximity of views” proved decisive. When I ask him what exactly he means, he answers that migration policy is crucial.

“Or rather, anti-immigrant policy.”

“This government isn’t anti-immigrant, it’s pro-Polish,” Karol retorts seriously. “We are a small nation…”

“Not all that small, almost 40 million strong. And the EU relocation program was supposed to bring in some nine thousand refugees,” I interject.

“Yes, they talk about several thousand, but let’s bear in mind that those people would have the right to bring in their families. If our government claims that that is too many people, then that is clearly the case.”

Karol is adamant, so finally I say that in my opinion, this is a rather cowardly stance, given that we are talking about a government that promised to build a strong state. What kind of strong state is unable to cope with a few thousand traumatized victims of war? Karol presents a series of arguments that he sees as decisive.

“I don’t believe that anyone from the government would refuse help to those who are really in need,” he declares. “But are all those people who are seeking asylum in Europe really fleeing war? I wouldn’t be so sure. I’m not convinced that even one percent of those ‘refugees’ are really refugees. Everything is fine as long as newcomers are contributing and enriching the country, as long as there’s no threat. And the people who would come here are our polar opposites. During the war, Polish immigrants fought for the countries that took them in. I doubt that these people would fight for us. I’ll put it this way: I am a proponent of providing assistance on the ground, and anyone who truly warrants asylum should get it in Poland.”

I note that PiS is really not so unique when it comes to migration policy. PO under Ewa Kopacz was hardly champing at the bit to help Syrian refugees, and today under Schetyna’s leadership that party dodges every time the issue of refugees comes up. So I ask Karol why he did not decide to support PO.

The PiS activist first tells me what he appreciates about his political opponents: the organization of the European Football Championship in 2012, the construction of stadiums and local sports complexes. What he resents is first and foremost the 2014 eavesdropping scandal. “The words on those tapes are dripping with arrogance, with ostentatious displays of power. When I heard the first recordings, I thought to myself that we live in a strange country. People should have been out in the streets. If those who were recorded had even a shred of honor, then they would have all resigned,” Karol says, animated.

“Ok, but what kind of scandal are we talking about? There weren’t even any suggestions of corruption. It was drunken talk at an expensive restaurant,” I reply, trying to cool his indignation.

“No, no, it was much more serious than that. From the words of the Minister of the Interior we clearly saw that he knew that things were going poorly, but he wasn’t doing anything to change that.” Karol is too cultured to repeat the vulgar remarks made by Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz concerning the state of Poland. The memorable phrase “dick, ass, and a pile of rocks” achieved such infamy that it even has its own Wikipedia entry. “Besides, let’s not kid ourselves, a dinner that costs several thousand złoty may not be a crime, but it is an infraction, it is at least a disciplinary infraction,” he contends.

It was during the presidential campaign that Karol first came to hope that the compromised PO politicians would have to give up their ministerial posts. During the parliamentary elections he fulfilled his civic duty, counting votes at a primary school in Wrocław. PiS did not win in his district, but when he was counting ballots he already knew that that didn’t matter. The exit polls were clear: PiS had won and would be able to govern without a coalition.

“Tell me, what do you think is the source of PiS’s electoral success?” I ask.

“Well.” He takes a deep breath and I see that his answer is well prepared. “We just got closer to the voters. Pope Francis said once that priests should ‘be shepherds with the smell of sheep.’ And I think that PiS has the smell of its electorate.”

Wystąpienie na Konwencji Prawa i Sprawiedliwości #PolskaJestJedna

Musimy zadbać o to, żeby rodziny były bezpieczne, by godnie żyły i by w Polsce rodziło się coraz więcej dzieci. To jest dzisiaj nasze największe wyzwanie.Zapraszam do obejrzenia całego mojego wystąpienia na sobotniej konwencji Prawa i Sprawiedliwości #PolskaJestJedna

Opublikowany przez Beata Szydło Wtorek, 17 kwietnia 2018

 

I wonder where Karol places PiS’s most important shepherd, Jarosław Kaczyński, within this biblical metaphor. “For me, he is above all an efficient manager. He is a man of action. I will also say that as a member of the party I do not feel the chairman’s iron fist at all.”

He met Jarosław Kaczyński once and shook his hand. “It was a good, masculine handshake,” he recalls. Karol is not worried about the future of the party under its current leadership. He is not worried at all. He understands that a PiS victory in the local elections in Wrocław would be quite an upset, but he is confident about the presidential and parliamentary contests. “There’s no one to lose to,” he says, grinning widely.

Karol decided to leave the party on the day the interview was published in Polish. He told me he could not talk freely with me as he was instructed to abstain from any criticism of the party.

Magdalena Wawrzeczko: Church, school, shooting range

Bielsko-Biała, Katowice, Warsaw. Magda knows the train timetable within this triangle by heart. She is from Bielsko-Biała, she is studying in Katowice, she works in Warsaw. In Bielsko-Biała she is the chairwoman of the local cell of the PiS Youth Forum, and she is studying law at Silesian University in Katowice. Where does she work? “I can’t say for now,” she says, cutting short my guesses, and states that she doesn’t want the same kind of buzz that surrounded Bartłomiej Misiewicz, a young and incompetent spokesman for the Minister of Defence. I’m able to figure out through Twitter that she is a social media assistant to MP Stanisław Pięta.

When we meet at a pizza place at the Katowice train station, the media storm surrounding Pięta’s affair and the allegations that he got his mistress a job at the Polish oil company Orlen has already calmed down. The Bielsko-Biała MP’s party membership was suspended, and he was removed from the investigative committee and the committee on the special services. But we don’t get a chance to talk about Pięta. “I don’t intend to comment on the situation concerning Representative Pięta,” she says in response to all of my questions on the subject. Magda, a 20-year-old law student, answers like an experienced politician testifying before a committee.

We order a kebab pizza. Before we eat, Magda makes the sign of the cross, and then she tells me what it’s like to be an activist for the “Good Change” camp.

The thing that stands out most in her memory from the past year is gathering signatures in favor of the “Stop abortion” legislation.

“We collected signatures at parish churches, on city streets, before the Independence March. A typically intense day would begin when I woke up at 4:00 am in order to head out at 5:00 am. The first mass was at 6:00 am, and the last one was around 6:00 pm. When I was organizing the collection of signatures in my parish, I wanted to be there from morning until the last mass in the evening,” she recalls. She documents everything on Twitter: “Today in Jaworzynka,” “In my parish in Rudzica,” “We are also at mass in Iłownica.”

According to Magda, abortion is “child murder,” but she does not believe that women who abort their pregnancies should be punished. I can’t help but point out the contradiction.

“Wait, if you consider abortion to be murder, and the murder of a ‘defenseless child’ at that, then you should demand that people be sentenced to life in prison for it.”

“From a logical point of view, that’s very consistent,” she answers after a moment of reflection. “But would our society accept such a law? I don’t think it would, yet. It’s not the right moment. We need many years of education on the issue of abortion, we need to raise society’s sensitivity to this issue,” says the 20-year-old PiS activist.

Among her tweets on collecting signatures, I find a lot of photos with Representative Pięta and firearms—the Bielsko-Biała politician is a patron of the Podbeskidzie 2020 Youth Shooting Initiative. What else does Magda do? “We commemorate historical events, we lay down flowers, we clean up military cemeteries where those who died for Poland are buried, we organize trips to the Independence March, we collect hygiene products for children and young people at the Bielsko-Biała emergency shelter, or for the Małych Stópek Foundation,” she says.

“I wanted to join the Youth Forum a long time ago, but I was only 13. And you can only join once you turn 16,” Magda relates with a smile, while I am unable to conceal my surprise that someone could have such clear political views in elementary school. “You probably want to ask how it’s possible that I got interested in politics at such a young age,” she says, beating me to it. “You know, at age 11 boys want to be mechanics or firemen, but I knew that I want to work on behalf of people, to serve others through my activities. That’s just something that you feel.”

“But what got you interested in politics? Was it a specific political figure?”

“Yes, there was such a person,” Magda sighs. “I have always tried to model myself on him. I am, of course, talking about Chairman Jarosław Kaczyński. I deeply value the late Professor Lech Kaczyński, his wisdom and his authority. For a while now I have been listening to his statements and speeches, I try to take an example from them, but I was raised on Jarosław Kaczyński, and for me he will always remain the most important political authority.

What does a successful 20-year-old in a floral sundress see in Jarosław Kaczyński?

“He is someone who has proven throughout his life that he is completely dedicated to serving his country. I am sure that he is a great patriot and that he always puts the interest of Poland and Poles first, the good of the country and the nation,” Magda says. When I ask her about any potential flaws on the part of the chairman, she answers that there are certainly no entirely irreproachable people, but she is unable to name any specific faults.

So far, Magda has met her idol only once, at one of the monthly marches commemorating the Smolensk crash. “I introduced myself, I greeted him, but we didn’t have a chance to have any kind of conversation. It wasn’t the right time. Nevertheless I will remember that moment for the rest of my life,” Magda states assuredly.

Magda is not worried about the state of democracy in Poland under PiS. Why then, are there all these protests in front of the Sejm, the Senate, the Supreme Court, I ask. According to Magda, “out of ignorance.” She believes that if people read the legislation that PiS is introducing, they would not be protesting. She adds diplomatically, “I think that everyone has the right to express his opinion. If someone sees certain things differently, go ahead. And if there are protests that means that we are a democratic country. No one is being jailed for protesting.”

Wprost’s cover 27/2018 (1842)

As I was waiting for Magda to arrive on the train from Bielsko-Biała, I read the latest issue of Wprost weekly, with Robert Biedroń (independent mayor of Słupsk, a founding member of the Campaign Against Homophobia) and Patryk Jaki (PiS candidate for the mayor of Warsaw, deputy Minister of Justice) on the cover. “They will rule,” the weekly forecasts, predicting that these two will hold top positions in 10-15 years.

I try to draw Magda into this speculation. Jaki or Biedroń? “Of course I prefer Patryk Jaki,” she replies confidently. “Although Biedroń may be nice enough. But he has spent tens of thousands of złoty on travel as mayor of Słupsk. I don’t think that many trips were necessarily warranted. People in Słupsk don’t praise his governance, they complain that he doesn’t show up for meetings of the City Council, which is, after all, his duty,” Magda contends.

“And if not Jaki, then who? You know, how shall I put it, Chairman Kaczyński won’t live forever.”

“Oh, God grant him a long life,” Magda says, offended. She gives the impression that it is difficult for her to imagine that anyone else could stand at the helm of PiS.

“Jan Śpiewak (left-leaning candidate for the mayor of Warsaw) might be interesting,” she finally says after giving it some thought, surprising me. “But he won’t draw crowds as, for instance, a future head of state. In terms of his politics and his views, I disagree with him, but he is nevertheless the person who first raised the subject of re-privatization in Warsaw.

In 15 years, Magda herself will be able to run for president. But she is not planning her political career so far in advance. She is focused on the here and now. “I would like to join the Territorial Defense Army this year. And if not this year, because it depends on how I organize my free time, then definitely next year,” she announces proudly.

Bio

Dawid Krawczyk
He conducts interviews and writes feature stories and reviews. Graduated with a degree in Philosophy and English Philology from the University of Wroclaw. He has been with Krytyka Polityczna since 2011 and is the managing editor of Political Critique magazine and its drug policy section. His articles have been published in Polish, English, Czech, Hungarian, Romanian, and Italian.

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