Disaffected youth may dampen Polish PM's poll hopes

WARSAW Thu Sep 29, 2011 11:23am BST

Poland's Prime Minister Donald Tusk (R) arrives for a media briefing following a meeting with soccer fans in Warsaw September 26, 2011.REUTERS/Peter Andrews

Poland's Prime Minister Donald Tusk (R) arrives for a media briefing following a meeting with soccer fans in Warsaw September 26, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Peter Andrews

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WARSAW (Reuters) - Mateusz Duszynski is the kind of a young, educated professional whose support Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk's pro-European, market-oriented Civic Platform (PO) should be able to count on in its bid for another four years in power.

But Duszynski, 31, says he will vote on October 9 for the centrist PO's arch-rival, the more conservative and nationalist-minded Law and Justice (PiS) party of Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

"I don't find this government serious, they are just businessmen who think only of themselves, not of the state," said Duszynski, a legal adviser.

"I help companies to set up their business but PO brought in a law that made things more difficult for entrepreneurs... Tusk is OK at public relations but he lacks inner convictions."

Duszynski may not be very representative of his generation in backing PiS, whose core electorate remains older, more rural-based and staunchly Catholic, but his disillusion with PO strikes a chord among many younger voters.

This group of voters helped Tusk to unseat Kaczynski's fractious right-wing coalition in 2007 but some have grown disenchanted with what they see as PO's overly cautious stance on economic reforms and some social issues.

Tusk's party remains ahead in opinion polls but in an increasingly tight parliamentary election race, the ebbing of support among younger voters could end up denying him the clear margin of victory he needs to build a stable new government.

One recent poll even shows PiS nudging ahead of PO among younger voters, though a much larger number say they have not yet decided how or indeed whether to vote.

"The politicians are fighting over just a few percentage points with the electorate, so from this point of view ... the youth vote is important," said Andrzej Rychard of the Polish Academy of Sciences.

DRIFTING AWAY

Younger voters, some of whom have benefited from the chance to work and study freely outside Poland since it joined the European Union in 2004, often hold economically liberal views.

Such people slam the government's partial reversal of a decade-old pension reform and hikes in value-added tax, both aimed at plugging a hole in the state finances caused by slower growth due to the global financial crisis in 2008-09.

Some younger voters are rallying to ex-PO lawmaker Janusz Palikot, a maverick with liberal social views who split with Tusk to set up his own movement which some opinion polls suggest might breach the 5 percent threshold to enter parliament.

Palikot, who champions gay rights, the legalisation of marijuana and ending compulsory religious education in schools, is expected to steal votes from both PO and from the post-communist Democratic Left Alliance, which suffers from weak leadership and is faring poorly in the opinion polls.

"(I like) Palikot's light anti-clericalism... He has no chance of winning this election but if he got into the Sejm (lower house of parliament) he could shake things up a bit," said Witold Michalowski, 18, a first-time voter.

Others feel backing The Movement of Support for Palikot (RPP) is a waste of a vote.

"I think this is a fight between the two main parties. Voting for Palikot is like throwing your vote into the mud... I will vote for PO as the lesser evil," said Sonja Orlewicz-Zakrzewska, 21, a student of photography.

Tusk, calm and measured, is personally popular in Poland where he is rated more trustworthy in surveys than his rivals.

His election campaign is based mainly on his government's handling of the economy, which managed to keep growing even during the 2008-09 global financial crisis and is expected to expand by a robust 4 percent this year.

But unemployment is disproportionately high among young people. It stood at about 25 percent among the 18-24 age group in June, up from 17 percent in 2008 and well above the national average of around 12 percent.

In a new 400-page report entitled "Youth 2011," the government identifies job insecurity as well as a mismatch between the education system and labour market needs as the biggest challenges facing younger Poles.

Kaczynski, waging a robust election campaign, has homed in on the issue, telling a youth rally last weekend: "Young people should have jobs that are not trash contracts which provide no benefits or guarantees."

VICTIM OF ITS OWN SUCCESS?

PO often tries to scare voters away from Kaczynski by evoking memories of the 2006-07 government of which he was prime minister, which was marred by acrimonious clashes with the media, state prosecutors, doctors and with Poland's EU partners.

But that tactic does not work with young voters who were not politically active during that period, Rychard said. The voting age in Poland is 18.

PO's election slogan is "Poland under construction" -- an allusion to the roads and other infrastructure being upgraded with the help of EU funds --- and underscores the central message of steady, incremental improvements in daily life that is unlikely to excite young people.

"In 2007, voting for PO meant voting against the political establishment, which the young often tend to do, but now voting for PO means voting for the establishment," said Rychard.

A big concern for PO is the risk of a low voter turnout next month. Some analysts think it could be as low as 40 percent, a scenario that would probably hurt PO more than PiS, whose older electorate is seen as more disciplined when it comes to voting.

Dorota Zakrzewska, 26, who works for a non-governmental organisation that encourages Poles to take part in elections, suggested PO might become a victim of its own success in having brought political and economic stability to Poland.

"We are not in a crisis situation in Poland. Most people don't care so much about the election because they lack any sense of crisis," she said.

(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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