In Warsaw and Berlin, Poland’s new alternative left party Razem is fighting their country’s ruling populism… digital-style.
In October 2015, Poland’s own brand of right-wing populism took the country by storm. The Law and Justice party (PiS), led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, swept aside the ruling centre-right coalition government to capture the presidency and parliament majority. Finding strong support among the devoutly Catholic farmers and miners of Poland’s southeast, PiS surged to power touting slogans like “We’re rising from our knees,” and “Poland is the most important”. With total government control, the party set about implementing a series of regressive measures, including the purging of over 130 journalists from state-run media, the imposition of stiffer prison sentences and restrictions on freedom of assembly. PiS’ agenda to bring Poland back to its Catholic roots also materialised as a law to make abortions punishable with a five-year prison sentence (except when the mother’s life is in danger), which was shot down after sparking rallies across Europe.
But few know that in 2015 Warsaw also saw the rise of a party on the other side of the ideological spectrum: Razem, formed in May by former activists from left-wing groups like the Greens and the Young Socialists. Inspired by Spain’s Podemos, it campaigns for a Nordic-style welfare system, a 35-hour work week, higher taxes on the rich and LGBTQ rights. This contrasts heavily with PiS’ agenda thus far, which has included tax breaks for the wealthy and the marginalisation of the queer community. Thanks to a mostly urban, educated and young base, Razem won 3.8 percent of the October vote – not enough to get into parliament, but enough to get attention.
Now, they’re looking for recruits in Berlin among the wave of young, hip Poles who emigrated here for the tech industry or arts scene. The party opened a branch in the German capital soon after they began their operations in Warsaw. The 50-strong group’s actions have included solidarity protests like Blockupy and the Black Monday demos against Poland’s proposed abortion ban, as well as spreading the word about their operations within Berlin’s 200,000-strong Polish community. “It all happened pretty organically. There was a lot of interest from precariat millennials who heard about our movement, and there are a lot of young Poles in Berlin who wanted to be a part of the new Polish Left,” says Razem Berlin member Paweł Wita, a 27-year-old who studied cultural anthropology in Münster before moving here in 2015 to be closer to his family.
Wita found out about Razem via social media, which the party aggressively utilises to make their presence known to young Poles who might otherwise gravitate towards PiS (or Kukitz’15, a youth-oriented far-right movement led by rock star Pawel Kukiz). “I got involved when I started seeing some of my friends posting Razem’s memes on Facebook,” Wita says. The images, which have been cropping up on Razem’s Facebook page since its creation, have amassed thousands of likes and hundreds of shares. Many contrast Poland’s dire situation with the “supposedly impossible” progressive state of things elsewhere; for example, an early favourite showed a pair of laughing old men with the caption, “Supposedly impossible! Unemployed people in Denmark receive 90 percent of their last salary for two years. Yet the unemployment rate is six percent, the lowest in Europe.” Through these memes, the party found its niche among the internet crowd, support swelling to nearly 90,000 likes on their main Facebook page, and a more modest, but respectable 1300 on their Berlin page.
“I really just wish that we had organised a year earlier,” Wita comments, referring to PiS’ 2015 landslide wins. “You can see that the Polish people were looking for some kind of alternative, but at the time, there was no alternative. It’s as if one order was being dismantled, but the other one had yet to appear.” Their social-media-savvy campaigns don’t shy away from populist tactics, aiming to convey what Wita calls “a new message that isn’t being shown on the neo-liberal-controlled media”. You might even draw parallels to the infamous Pepe the Frog meme that has come to represent the alt-right movement in the US, though that parallel falls apart quickly – rather than spreading a nationalist inflammatory message, Razem uses memes as a way to advocate a society open to all, with comprehensive welfare and strong support for a more social EU.
Currently, it seems Razem is distancing itself from its meme-fuelled past, shifting their online strategy in a slightly more serious direction – and this shift has garnered them further support. “I only officially joined Razem after their first party congress in May 2015 – I was initially a little skeptical of joining another ‘internet revolution’, and I wanted to see them take some concrete action,” says Wita. In both Warsaw and Berlin, Razem is preparing for the Polish local elections that will take place this autumn, and they have high hopes of entering the European parliament in May of 2019. Says Wita, “Right now, our goal is really to reach the older generation. If we can do that, we really have a chance to get into the government.”