Poland has been one of the rare success stories in Europe. Over a decade since it joined the European Union, its economy continues to grow and its weight on the world stage with it. Everything from education standards to gender equality have improved. Many Poles, unlike peers in other European nations, can say that life has never been better.
It would seem, then, the presidential election ought to be a snoozer. Since 2007, when President Bronisław Komorowski's Civic Platform has been in power, Poland's economy has grown by more than 20 percent.
Instead Mr. Komorowski faced a shock result in the first round of the presidential race on May 10, with two thirds of the populace casting ballots against his center-right party. And now he goes into a second round facing Andrzej Duda from the nationalist Law and Justice Party. The latest polls show they are neck-and-neck.
Yet as the race nears, the biggest story is the man not on the ballot Sunday: anti-system candidate Pawel Kukiz, a former rock star with icon status among the youth. Mr. Kukiz was the third place finisher in the May 10 elections with 20 percent. And whichever way his supporters vote today, they are rocking the system ahead of more important parliamentary elections in October – just as anti-elite, anti-system politics have rattled countries across Europe.
And it is a troubling sign for European centrists who have long hoped that the appeal of fringe parties – like left-wing Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, to the right-wing National Front in France and Jobbik in Hungary – is merely a temporary reflex to bad economic times. As Poland’s case shows, even amid economic success, there is a growing rejection of the status quo.
“Voting for Kukiz was rather voting against, not for, something,” says Rafal Chwedoruk, political analyst at the University of Warsaw.
'Something is wrong with the system'
To understand the disillusionment percolating here, the 20-something perspective is informative. While the economy has grown and so have wages, nearly two-thirds of Poles earn less than the average monthly salary of 2,900 zlotys, or $790, a month. Many work on so-called “junk contracts,” meaning that they don’t have healthcare, pensions, or any kind of job security. Thousands have emigrated to Britain or Germany.
They have punished Civic Platform for it, either staying away from the polls or handing their vote to Kukiz. Civic Platform garnered 55 percent of young people’s votes in parliamentary elections in 2007, plummeting to 15 percent in this presidential race. Kukiz got 42 percent of their vote.
In Zbawiciela Square, Warsaw’s hipster hangout with a thriving café and restaurant scene, Agnieszka Zabrocka, in her 20s, says she supports Kukiz simply as a protest against the mainstream. A vote for Kukiz, she says, is a demonstration of "anger and disappointment with politicians.”
Radoslaw Markowski, the director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw, points out that Poles live better and earn more than they did a decade ago, and fare much better than neighboring Hungary or the Czech Republic. But the national aspiration – that the country should look like Sweden or Germany by now – has not been met.
That is measured both in terms of standards of living and a consolidation of democracy, especially anger in the wake of a secret-tapes scandal last summer that showed insider dealing among the political class. And young people are among the most hit. "We have a high number of unemployed young people or working on junk contracts, so there is something wrong with the system,” Mr. Markowski says.
Rocking the vote
They could sway the vote on Sunday. The latest survey, conducted by the CBOS Institute, shows 48 percent of voters planning to cast votes for Duda compared to 44 percent for Komorowski.
Duda's youth campaign is seeking to appeal to Kukiz supporters. At their campaign headquarters, Paweł Szefernaker, a leader of the Law and Justice Youth Forum and chief Internet strategist for Duda's campaign, says Duda is the candidate who understands the problems of the young, with more than half of his advisers under age 35. “Young people are disappointed with the Civic Platform. They want change,” he says. “Duda knows the problems of the younger generation.”
That will be a harder message for both mainstream parties to sell during October parliamentary elections, when Kukiz is expected back on the scene.
Karol Kuhn, who works for the Free Word Society, an organization that helps activists who once fought against Communism, is one person who plans to cast a vote for Kukiz in October – to Mr. Kuhn's own surprise.
He says for round one of the presidential vote he arrived at the polls backing Komorowski, although as the "lesser of two evils." But by the time he cast his vote it was for Kukiz. He says he knew that vote wasn’t going to lead to victory, but it led to something more important. “[Kukiz] revealed the level of dissatisfaction and frustration within society,” he says, an awakening he says he hopes continues.