ZOiS Spotlight 6/2020

Polish youth, nationalism, and the far right

by Tom Junes 12/02/2020
Members of a far-right association during Poland’s independence march in Warsaw on 11 November 2019. © imago images / ZUMA Press

Since late 2015, Poland has been the subject of media and academic attention over its perceived democratic backsliding, which has resulted in an illiberal turn. Despite these concerns, the populist government led by the Law and Justice (PiS) party won a convincing series of electoral victories, culminating in the October 2019 parliamentary election, at which the party won a second mandate.

However, for many observers of Polish politics, perhaps the biggest surprise in the parliamentary election was the result of the far-right Confederation party. The group managed to cross the threshold needed to enter parliament by winning 1.3 million votes, or 6.8 per cent of the total. The election had one of the highest turnouts in decades, at 61.7 per cent.

A key factor in Confederation’s success was its support among Poland’s youth, with whom it polled around 20 per cent. Does such a high figure of support imply that Poland is witnessing a far-right turn among the younger generation? If so, how can this be explained and what could it mean for Polish politics?

Youth identity, patriotism, and nationalism

To understand any notion of a far-right turn among younger Poles, one has to look at several current and interconnected developments. The shift has diverse roots, but it is mostly about identity and cultural anxiety—and it did not come out of nowhere. Far-right trends have been discernible for years among young football ultras, and the counter-cultural appeal of elements of Poland’s youth hip-hop and rap culture could equally be seen as nurturing far-right tendencies from below.   

The country’s overall political process and public discourse also contributed—to some degree—to the formation of far-right attitudes among young people. Official historical politics and the consumer patriotism that often accompanied it—such as catchy patriotic slogans and symbols as branding on commodities—provided a platform for the expression of nativist and nationalist views. In addition, the adverse effects of globalisation produced resentment that fuelled far-right attitudes. For instance, negative sentiments towards migrants during the European refugee crisis in 2015 were strongest among the youth.

Another important element that enabled the growth of far-right-thinking youth is the recent mainstreaming of far-right views from the party in power—PiS—and its affiliated media outlets. This has been seen more than anywhere in the way Poland’s annual independence march on 11 November has evolved into the largest far-right street demonstration in Europe and a catalyst for far-right views among Poland’s youth. In short, it has become trendy to be far right.

The rise of the far right

For a long time, Polish politics seemed immune to far-right tendencies that were visible in other countries in the region. In part, this was due to PiS’s long-standing policy of not tolerating any competition on its right flank, through a combination of partial co-optation and division. No viable far-right formation emerged, partly because the extreme right was at best a collection of fringe movements. The recent failure of PiS’s strategy—to a large extent due to its stint in government—and the emergence of a stable far-right group, along with the appearance of a critical mass of young male voters, go a long way to explaining Confederation’s success.

In the past decade, young people’s interests did not feature highly on the agendas of the big political parties. Youth was an ignored political niche, usually tapped into by anti-establishment candidates. This was an opportunity that the far right ultimately seized. Over recent years, surveys among high-school students have consistently shown far-right and anti-establishment parties to be the most popular. It was only a matter of time until this popularity was expressed at the ballot box, and in this sense, Confederation’s success was not unexpected.

Two more elements contributed to the rise of the far right. The first was a change in the media environment. While the far right has traditionally been unable to gain much access to the mainstream media, it had no such impediments on social media, where it could reap the benefits of its anti-establishment messaging. The second, and most crucial, element was the fact that enough of the previously divided far right managed to unite in a single formation and pool its collective electoral potential.

A fleeting success or the shape of things to come?

Despite Confederation’s success in October’s parliamentary election, there is little chance in the long term that the far-right group will become a major political force, because it is a party that caters to a niche electorate. It also remains to be seen whether the young cohort of voters who recently opted for Confederation will keep doing so or migrate to one of the larger parties, such as PiS.

Yet, the existence of this class of young, far-right voters could have some influence on Poland’s political process in the short to medium term, for instance by pulling other parties towards the hard right. This could even happen during this year’s presidential election campaign: although Confederation’s young candidate is not expected to reach the second-round run-off, his voters could be courted with far-right slogans from other contenders. The key question is to what extent Poland’s mainstream political parties can resist the dangerous temptation of a far-right shift.

Tom Junes holds a PhD in history and is currently a Marie Sklodowska-Curie fellow at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy.