Packed nightly with students sketching out plans for the future, the cafes and bars in this historic university city are brimming with talk of chance and promise.
But when this weekend's presidential election comes up, it elicits a frown and complaints about the lack of good leaders.
"I have a feeling I should go out and vote," says Marta Ciastoch, a Ukrainian studies student working at Krakow's only English-language bookstore, Massolit. "But there's no one I trust. I don't know what man to choose to represent me."
Fed up with an 18 percent unemployment rate (the highest in the EU), an ineffective health-care system, and the corruption of the previous government, Poles appeared ready to thrust the country toward the free-market policies espoused by presidential candidate Donald Tusk of the neo-liberal Civic Platform party.
But now, two days before Sunday's election, Poles seem to be pulling back from economic reform, showing more support for Mr. Tusk's rival Lech Kaczynski, whose conservative Law and Justice party promises to retain more of the comforts associated with a welfare state. A poll released Thursday showed Mr. Kaczynski trailing Tusk by 9 points, narrowing the 18-point gap registered two weeks ago.
Like their German counterparts, who last month reduced their support at the last minute for Angela Merkel's get-tough economic platform in favor of Gerhard Schröder's welfare policies, Poles seem stuck between a desire for change and an unwillingness to bear the short-term costs of needed reforms. In Poland's parliamentary elections Sept. 25,the hitherto popular Civic Platform party's call for privatization of state industries, a flat-tax rate, and social cuts appeared to unsettle voters in the final week, giving Law and Justice 27 percent of the vote to Civic Platform's 24 percent.
With the post-communist Democratic Left Alliancegarnering only 11 percent of the vote, it is up to Civic Platform and Law and Justice to form a coalition government. Though observers believe the two are serious about making good on campaign promises to sweep out the corruption that has been a mainstay of Polish political life in recent years, they are undecided on whether the coalition can agree on prickly issues like tax simplification, labor cost cuts, and whether Poland is ready to take on the euro currency by 2010.
The presidential election, which may require a runoff vote Oct. 23, will determine not only the balance of power between Poland's two largest parties, but also how quickly the new EU member sets about reforming itself and readying itself for the euro.
"They can be a bit better than the last government ... but it's not the golden solution in central Eastern Europe," says Dieter Bingen, director of the German-Polish Institute.
With Eastern European neighbors like Slovakia and the tiger economies of the Baltics to the north outpacing Poland's growth, many young Poles aren't ready to wait until coalition differences are worked out in Warsaw. But they haven't given up on their country. "I like other countries very much, but Poland is my home, and I want to live and do everything here," says Honorata Gawlas. A pianist who is a year away from completing a degree in philology, Ms. Gawlas has decided to avoid the uphill battle of finding a traditional job by starting an Internet TV business in Poland with her friends.
Bartek Nowak, a young entrepreneur who hopes to expand "Crazy Guides," the tour business he cofounded last year, is also committed to remaining in Poland, but is more adamant about needed reforms.
"I think that liberal markets [are] the only thing that will break socialist habits," reflects Mr. Nowak, who is finishing up a degree at the city's economics university and voted for the neoliberal Civic Platform in the parliamentary elections.
"I'm one of the few people who is looking optimistically towards the future," he says.