National Internet Pro-voting Campaigns and Local Watchdog Websites: Practicing Civil Society Online

  • Helena Chmielewska-Szlajfer


The chapter focuses on the reemergence of grassroots civic engagement in contemporary Poland. The national internet pro-voting campaigns and local watchdog websites show a departure from a detached and clientelistic approach to the state; rather, they point at people’s desire for civic engagement. While national internet pro-voting campaigns focus on encouraging people to cast their ballot, local watchdog websites provide independent news and offer space for discussion on local governments. They provide anonymity for people to discuss matters of public concern without the fear of being harassed by the authorities, yet with online visibility that has the power to influence them. I argue that these websites are public spaces where shared notions of a common good become visible and practiced. The Polish cases are put into broader perspective by looking at the influential role of the Rock the Vote campaigns, which succeeded in engaging young voters in the United States.

Together with general political change in post-1989 democratic Poland, civic activity has also been undergoing fundamental shifts. The focus of this chapter is on the civic practices of ordinary citizens in Poland, in the process of trying to overcome a discontent between people and the state—the legacy of the Communist era. I address how civil society is being reshaped through electoral culture and how it emerges in local communities. In both these cases one can observe a gradual shift in the understanding of civic engagement, and more generally, civil society, the key values of a democratic society. The growing availability of the internet in Poland since the aughts has led to the rise of a new social phenomenon and practices: internet pro-voting campaigns developed by university students in Warsaw, who wanted to encourage people to participate in elections, and the development of grassroots local websites initiated by local residents in villages and small towns, who were interested in their local history and culture. After more than a decade of democratic rule, in the first decade of the twenty-first century—a tumultuous period on the Polish political scene—the internet emerged as a space for civic participation. In the first case discussed here, university students in Poland’s capital chose to use the internet to inspire people to vote, a civic act they considered a basic democratic right that should be exercised by all citizens. The second case centers on the expansion of the internet in small towns and rural areas after 2005 that led to the creation of independent local websites dedicated to unrestricted discussion, which in turn became driving forces behind the rise of civic activity in a number of local communities . The development of the internet as a space for everyday civic participation challenges the existing popular, frequently unenthusiastic reflections on Polish civil society that are widespread in Polish scholarship. According to structural indicators used to analyze the civic maturity of Polish society, civic participation has been low since the democratic transition.1 However, examples of recent national internet pro-voting campaigns (whose makers create YouTube videos and other online content inspiring citizens to vote) and local watchdog websites (which provide independent local news and space for discussion) shed light on the overlooked development of everyday civic participation. They are part of a more general debate about democracy and civil society, as well as about individuals who consider the country, or the local community, a common good that is “theirs,” something that can be changed through joint work.

The general discussion on contemporary civil society began around the 1980s, and was prompted by the developments in East and Central Europe, notably, Poland. Scholars returned to redefining the concept shaped by classic authors like Tocqueville (2003), who analyzed democracy in America, or, more recently, Dewey (1991), who discussed the post–World War II divided and industrialized world. However, civil society could no longer be defined by Tocqueville’s nineteenth-century concept of individuals’ free associations created to negotiate private interests and achieve shared goals. As Arato and Cohen write, Western liberal democracies became increasingly dominated by a discussion between individuals, the free market, and state administration (1993, p. 3f.). At the same time, in East and Central Europe, controlled by the Soviet Union, citizens—particularly in Poland—were rediscovering the potential of civil society in opposition to oppressive Communist states. Arato and Cohen describe civil society broadly as “a sphere of social interaction between economy and state” (1993, p. ix), comprising the private sphere such as family and friends, associations, social movements, and—as Habermas (1974) would put it—public communication. Though the scholars were referring to increasing civic activities aimed at enlarging the minuscule public space in the 1970s and 1980s, this definition is helpful also in the context of the developments in Poland that took place over 15 years later. The local watchdog websites—independent news and information portals that monitor the activities of local governments—can be seen as examples of both communication-based and communication-oriented engagement in civil society. At the same time, they provide a space where citizens can discuss matters, from local cultural events to the placement of pedestrian crossings on streets. Their practices are not limited to engagement in the “political society” focused on the issues of political power, described by Cohen (1995, p. 38), which can be noticed in the actions of national pro-voting campaigns. These activities show how, after 1989, civil society—broadly understood as people meeting to negotiate their interests, at the same time caring for the common good of the society they are part of—is in fact practiced. Whether civil society is “celebrated” during elections, when representatives of citizens are chosen, or is an “ordinary” part of daily life in online discussions on how the actions of local authorities affect their communities , they are practices of civic interest in a shared social sphere, that have become possible as a result of the democratic transition. Another inspiration for this research on civic activity at the local level is the work of Robert Putnam. The scholar, who emphasizes the importance of small communities in civic engagement, points out that building trust and a shared sense of responsibility, which are key for civic practices, are particularly noticeable at the local level.2 The following study of grassroots internet national pro-voting campaigns and local watchdog websites proposes a similar direction in exploring civic engagement. Here, communities centered on work for what they consider a shared, common good—whether local or nationwide—are shaped in the practice of civil society in today’s Poland. I argue that these activities illustrate a broadening of the social imaginary of Poland’s democratic society.

The Dissident Civil Society in Poland Before 1989 (and Beyond)

Scholars such as Arato, Cohen, and Walzer, but also many others, maintain that the debate on civil society—practiced rather than discussed in the West—reemerged in the 1970s behind the Iron Curtain. According to them, while civil society was not an object of much debate in established liberal democracies , in Central-Eastern Europe new civic practices became ways of challenging the Communist regime, and significant intellectual effort was directed toward inventing the ways through which citizens could exert some influence over state policies, and therefore over their own lives. The British-Czech philosopher Ernest Gellner wrote that the social conditions of the Soviet Bloc in fact fostered the creation of civil society there (1994, p. 54). After failed attempts to transform the regime in 1956 in Hungary and Poland, in 1968 in Czechoslovakia, and in 1976 in Poland, the emergence of relatively independent pockets of civil society provided spheres of more freedom, but were “self-limiting,” without making revolutionary claims to overthrow the government. Elzbieta Matynia called these practices “permitted but limited” by the state (2009, p. 146), and included activities such as independent teaching, publishing, and legal as well as financial aid for workers.3 This civic activity of 1970s and 1980s was also a form of moral opposition against the oppressive state, one that Timothy Garton Ash named a “civic crusade for moral renewal” (1990, p. 103). Initially, civil society, though this term was not used then, was a project of political dissidents, notably, Adam Michnik and, earlier, Leszek Kołakowski, whose hopes to address the shortcomings of the Communist system in the 1960s proved futile. Their reaction to the oppressive, delusory regime was to act as if the political lies did not exist,4 and to emphasize human dignity and the freedom to create associations.5 Indeed, the creation of Solidarity, the first independent workers’ union in the summer of 1980, showed that this approach was effective. Touraine’s work on the evolution of the workers’ movement in Poland in 1981 (Dubet et al. 1982; Touraine 1983) stressed that unlike the post-Stalinist “thaw” of 1956 or the student protests of 1968, Solidarity was not limited to the intellectual dissidents. At its peak, Solidarity had ten million members, a quarter of Poland’s population. Even though it was crushed after 16 months, when martial law was imposed at the end of 1981, in his Letter from the Gdańsk Prison, Michnik wrote that “instead of resembling a Communist system after a victorious pacification, this situation resembles a democracy after a military coup d’état” (1985, p. 81). Touraine shared this notion, arguing that the use of force against citizens was the most visible sign of the Communist government’s weakness and its failure to create a socialist society. Hannah Arendt (1958) would have likely agreed that the imposition of the state of war to delegalize the Solidarity movement—the most developed civil society movement in the region—was a clear sign of the regime’s vanishing power.6 Forecasting the regime’s decline, in the same essay, Michnik emphasized that Solidarity was a movement that aimed to create new, democratic social institutions.

The Polish sociologist Jerzy Szacki also highlighted the civic element in the envisioned future Polish society. “A community of values not of interests—culture and not the economy—was to be the backbone of social independence” (1997, p. 27), he wrote in the mid-1990s. However, the problem that surfaced after the political change of 1989 was that no one was thinking about the commonplace civil society, when the political and the economic ones, as Cohen and Arato described them, had to be built. The experience shared by the dissidents of 1970s and the Solidarity movement of 1980–81 was that of national unity and of voicing the truth against a concrete enemy, the lying and oppressive Communist state. However, the far less black-and-white reality with numerous competing opinions brought by democratic transition turned out to be a much bigger challenge than the dissidents had anticipated. The newly emerged and democratically elected political class generally focused on catching up with the liberal-democratic West , treating it as an obvious, mostly technical task rather than a subject of major public debate (Ogrodziński 1991; Sztompka 1993; Szacki 1997; Śpiewak 2011; Król 2015). The main efforts were focused on improving the economy—staggering after decades of ineffective central planning, shortages, and increasing debt—privatizing the state-owned companies, and promoting the new capitalist ideal of the entrepreneurial individual. The liberal-democratic transition after 1989, Szacki argued, “was an adaptation of states that had been freed from autocracy, to Western liberal democracy based on market economy” (1997, p. 23) inspired by the liberal economic visions of Thatcher and Reagan, that is of a small state and free enterprise. Thus, civil society—neither part of the politics of the state nor the economy—was left to emerge on its own in consequence of the democratic transformation.7 While a bill on associations was passed already in 1989 and a new set of laws on local self-government came into effect in 1991, detailed legislation supporting non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and volunteer activity did not appear until 2003. The bill on NGOs , the legal embodiment of a “Western” principle of established democracies , was passed not only 14 years after the democratic transition, but also only 1 year before the accession to the European Union—one of Poland’s biggest policy objectives in terms of “catching up” with the West. Nevertheless, a basic frame supporting local democracy was created at the very beginning of Poland’s democratic transformation, and the early emphasis on local self-government distinguishes Polish transformation from others in the region. Yet the long time that passed between creating the legal framework for local self-government and laws on NGOs provides an interesting context for the emergence of civic activity on the internet in Poland in the first decade of the twenty-first century. The nationwide pro-voting campaigns and the local watchdog websites explored here are, for the most part, activities grounded in the principles of free associations, but in Poland, they only rarely become registered as NGOs .

According to Polish scholars such as Król (1993), Sztompka (1996), and Szacki (1997), democratic transformation was possible because of the preexisting ideas of civil society practiced by the anti-Communist opposition. Others (Ogrodziński 1991; Gliński 2011), however, argued that the trouble with establishing civil society in post-1989 Poland stemmed from the fact that, under Communism, it mostly served as a uniting force against the oppressive state, and once the enemy state was defeated, in a democratic reality offering a multitude of options, people found it difficult to define new shared goals and organize around them. The contrast between Communists and dissidents was frequently defined in moral terms as black and white, giving little space for discussion on the practical, civic aspects of the society the dissidents hoped for. At the same time, this way of framing the conversation on civil society in Polish scholarship ignored the daily practice of helping others (e.g. as the Committee for Workers’ Defense) or, more generally, the attitude of living “as if” in a free society, as Michnik wrote, where civic engagement was a shared practice done together and for others, but not defined through conflict with the state.

Stefan Nowak’s “Sociological Void” Between People and the State

One of the most interesting, and still little-known, studies that illustrate the social reality of late Communism was an extensive research on values in Polish society done by the Polish sociologist, Stefan Nowak.8 Based on his studies, in the late 1970s, Nowak argued that the only thing the intellectuals and the workers agreed upon in their visions of civil society was freedom of speech. After 1989, several scholars also observed that some dissidents of the 1970s and 1980s became trapped in the idea of an anti-Communist nation-state, which became increasingly shaped by the nationalist orientation of the Catholic Church (Ogrodziński and Szlajfer 1992; Sztompka 1996; Matynia 2009). This narrative—Catholic and nationalist—rivaled that of secular civil society, and did not die after the transition to democracy was accomplished, gaining more visibility instead.9 This particular mark of civil society could be found in the Solidarity movement as well, which Matynia described as “the crowning moment of Polish civil society” before 1989. It was a temporary unified community of citizens made up of very different constituencies, “workers at large enterprises, bringing a populist hue to the language of material claims and entitlements; the secular intelligentsia, including many lay Catholics, speaking the language of human rights, cultural liberties, and strong democratic commitments; and many in the broader Catholic milieu who were unambiguous about their national colors, speaking the language of national values and claims.” (Matynia 2009, p. 145) The movement was united in its negotiations with the oppressive enemy-state; but the price for this unity, to be paid later, was the long-term struggle to introduce ordinary, daily civic practices in a democratic society.10

Given the diversity of positions concerning civil society in social studies in Poland, research conducted by Stefan Nowak is particularly noteworthy. Nowak, a professor of sociology who taught at the University of Warsaw, began studying values and aspirations of Poles the late 1950s and continued his research for over two decades.11 The scholar asked people about the key principles they found important to carry themselves as individuals and citizens, as well as about their visions of life in the future. One of the most striking discoveries brought about in Nowak’s (2004) research was the “sociological void,” a fundamental distance and estrangement between people and the state.12 While those interviewed claimed they were ready to “suffer for the nation”13 and make sacrifices for their family and friends, they were indifferent to the state and its institutions that manage society. This clearly showed the failure of Communist authorities to convince people that they should treat the “socialist state” as their own, as something of the highest value. Officially staged “social works,” various forms of state-encouraged and supervised community work, proved effective in thwarting people’s desire for spontaneous, unorchestrated civic activity. The sociological void discovered by Nowak, the rift between the communities people identified with, the nation, family and friends, and the state—seen by them as outside the shared sphere—was a result of depriving citizens of influence in public matters, alienating them from the state, and turning them into needy supplicants of the Communist state institutions. Even though the authorities officially declared the existence of some elements of civil society (such as local self-government which, in theory, was supposed to be self-governed by the citizens), the “leading role” of the centralized Communist Party prevented any attempts of independent civic engagement (Wiatr 2006). In effect, the state was considered estranged and foreign: an imposed power that had to be dealt with, evaded, tricked, but not respected. Nowak’s studies captured and described the atomization of citizens within a socialist state, which resulted in the unusual strengthening of individuals’ personal ties. At the same time the sociological void between people and the state strengthened the emergence of “permitted but limited,” unofficial civic activity. It created an independent moral community opposed to the oppressive state, which focused on civic issues. Although in his descriptions of the void Nowak did not show much potential for social change, in 1983—three years after the creation of Solidarity and two years after the imposition of martial law—the scholar argued it was the disillusionment with the Communist government, ineffective and corrupt, that influenced the Solidarity movement to demand participation in governance, instead of appealing to the Communists to improve, as protesters still did in the 1970s (Nowak 2004, p. 352f.). As Communism lost the last traces of any idealistic appeal, Solidarity became “an organized society,” which filled the sociological vacuum and opened new space for civic activity on an unprecedented scale, well beyond personal ties.

Trouble with Civil Society in Contemporary Research in Poland

It is particularly interesting that, according to post-1989 Polish scholarship, the political transition did not change much in people’s feeling of detachment from the now-democratic state. One of the possible reasons is that what Szacki described as “civil nationalism” (1997, p. 42) was mistaken for civil society. Once the new democratic government became embroiled in internal conflicts, the citizens became disappointed with the fading unity among its own elected representatives. As the government was forced to quickly introduce political, and above all drastic economic, reforms, it was unable to cultivate a Solidarity-like civic community, and the citizens went back to the familiar divisions between “us” (people) and “them” (state). The democratic victory of 1989 turned into what the sociologist Piotr Sztompka called an “axiological chaos,” where “old patterns have fallen down, new ones have not yet been legitimized.” (1993, p. 89) Although NGOs were mushrooming, many of them focused on particular niches, such as sports, art, education, or social care. These organizations were often detached from the everyday struggles of citizens in a state undergoing major transformation at the beginning of the 1990s. Without social or civic control, new opportunities made available under the democratic and free-market system quickly turned into brutal competition and suspicion of others. While according to Sztompka, the democratic shift toward the West was accompanied by an “enthusiastic adoption of the most superficial symbols of capitalist affluence” (1993, p. 90), it did not include the Western practices of civil society.

Scholars studying the development of civil society in post-1989 Poland have often been basing their analyses on general institutional indicators, which makes them overlook civic engagement that is not formalized as registered organizations (Gliński and Palska 1997; Gliński 2006; Kościański 2006; Szlachcicowa 2008; Ekiert et al. 2017), even though recent studies show that 58% Poles claim that they occasionally engage in work for their local communities (Grabowska 2012). Wide-ranging qualitative studies such as the annually conducted Social Diagnosis (Czapiński and Panek 2015) indicate that Poles do engage in civic activities, which include helping neighbors, donating money, and doing community work, but more often than not, these are done without an institutional umbrella of NGOs that would make their identification easier. (Participation in the Grand Orchestra of Christmas Charity drives is an example of such unregistered civic activity.) Thus, the emergence of nationwide internet grassroots pro-voting campaigns and local watchdog websites, which are also not registered as NGOs —not only marks a return to the principles of civil society but also illustrates attempts to bridge the new sociological void between people and the democratic state that is not addressed by professionalized NGOs. The medium of the internet is used by people as a space for new forms of civic activity, aimed at local communities, utilizing the framework of a democratic state. At the same time, these sites of civic engagement may suggest that the post-1989 state, as an institutional shaper of civic life, is an important, even if difficult, partner for Poles, instead of being merely an enemy, as was the case under Communism.

Elections in Poland After 1989: Citizens and Voting as Basic Civic Practice

Introduction: Poland’s Electoral Landscape After 1989

The declaration of martial law in December of 1981 led to the deepening of Poland’s economic crisis. To legitimize the so-called second stage of economic reforms, which began as a consequence of the Solidarity agreements signed in 1980, in 1987 the Communist government called a referendum, but even the falsified results showed little citizen support. Furthermore, a 60% price increase—the highest since 1982—introduced at the beginning of 1988, led to a several-months-long wave of workers’ strikes all over Poland. In the face of mass protests, at the end of the summer the Communist government had no choice but to invite the banned Solidarity and dissident intellectuals to discuss how to improve the situation in the country. The negotiations, which in 1989 were formalized as the Round Table talks, laid the foundation for a fundamental change of the political system and led to the first semi-free parliamentary elections in postwar Poland. As a result of the agreement between Communists and the democratic opposition, parliamentary elections were announced, in which 65% of the seats in the Sejm, the lower chamber of the Polish parliament, were reserved for the members of the Communist Polish United Workers’ Party; however, the elections to the Senate, the upper chamber, were fully democratic. To the Communists’ surprise, the opposition took all of the available seats. The 1989 elections proved a key turning point for Poland, and an exceptional example of a peaceful democratic revolution that caused a democratization domino effect in the Soviet Bloc, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The transition from one party state to a multi-party democracy was an institutional change that introduced political and economic freedoms.

Still, despite the democratic transformation and the return of the practice of democratic rights to its citizens, voting rates, which can be treated as a basic indicator of citizens’ interest in the state, have been consistently low in Poland when compared to more established European democracies .14 Under Communist rule, the process under which high numbers of citizens cast their ballots during sham elections were called “ritualistic voting” (Wiatr 2006, p. 212 f.; Raciborski 2011, p. 98). The high participation in elections run by a one-party state was the result of a popular fear that the Communist authorities would punish people who ignored elections. This happened at times to those who did not march in the May Day parades—they were harassed about their absence at their workplace. The voters cast their ballots, but viewed the state as an oppressive “other” they had no influence on. After 1989, however, the clash between values shared by the majority of Poles and their attitudes toward the institutions of the democratic state became apparent in the low voter turnout in most of elections carried out after the democratic transition. One of the possible reasons was voiced by the sociologist Tadeusz Szawiel, who argued that democracy was not given but imposed on Poles (2003, p. 191), thus being not a prize but another burdensome, albeit promising, task to be dealt with. According to popular interpretations, the low participation levels of Polish citizens in elections were the result of the parties’ failure to offer what the voters wanted. However, some scholars writing about civil society, such as Raciborski, point out the Communist heritage of a clientelistic understanding of the government, which is supposed to cater to all the citizens’ needs. Others, such as Wiatr, emphasize that abstention is not only a sign of people’s disinterest in politics, but a visible expression of their disapproval of the political scene, an opinion they now feel free to voice—and one they could not have voiced before.

Unity within the democratic opposition that was instrumental in the Round Table negotiations, and that led to the dismantling of the previous regime, fell apart as soon as everyday political practices exposed a myriad of opposing interests among the politicians associated with Solidarity. They did not have a chance to discuss them before 1989, since their previous fight was clearly strategic and aimed at defeating the Communist state as such. In effect, the moral and political unity of the dissidents quickly faded as the very consequence of their success. At the same time, it was the post-Communists who were better prepared to govern. Unlike the dissidents who focused on their own new ideological battles, including the presence of the Catholic religion in public life and a ban on abortion rights, the post-Communists had experience in administrating the state and returned to power only four years later, as a result of the 1993 parliamentary elections—a shocking result to many who still remembered the 1989 victory of Solidarity and the democratic opposition.15 While there was a general consensus among the parties that free-market reforms had to be pursued, the first two years of democratic transition and economic reforms were marked by drastically rising prices and previously unknown hyperinflation. This led Poles to turn to the party that voiced “dignified restraint,” as Grzymała-Busse (2004) wrote, toward these radical reforms.16 The post-Communists promised to make citizens’ lives less economically vulnerable, presenting themselves as politicians who care about social welfare (Tavits and Letki 2009). Nevertheless, the institutional priority of reforming the staggering economy ignored any wide social consultations and dismissed the civic potential of people—something that had been clearly visible during the Solidarity period of 1980–81. In this situation, citizens burdened by the economic reforms—known as shock therapy—and the opportunities that came with them again centered their efforts on making their private lives better. At the same time, other forms of civic activity often became restricted to professionalized NGOs .

Those citizens who decided to vote were generally divided into supporters, on the one hand, of the post-Communist party, which reinvented itself as social democrats (SLD, Democratic Left Alliance), and , on the other, of the post-Solidarity parties, which in 2001 split into right-wing nationalistic conservatives Law and Justice (PiS), and center-right economic-liberals Civic Platform (PO). In between these two blocs was the Democratic Union (UD), later renamed Union of Freedom (UW). As the key architect of the Round Table negotiations with the former regime, the Democratic Union had been present in Polish politics from the very beginning of the democratic transition. The party formed links between representatives of both these political options, believing that cooperation was necessary for achieving the initial systemic change and for the success of state reforms. The liberal democrats, often former dissident intellectuals, were important shapers of the state, who in the 1990s successfully mediated between the post-Communists and right-wing politicians, pushing for Poland’s integration with the institutions of the Western democratic world. Although the party was a coalition partner in all of the center-right governments formed in the 1990s, it disappeared after 2001, when most of its electorate voted for the more populist, center-right Civic Platform party. The most surprising feature of the electoral landscape in the early democratic period was that voters switched between left- and right-oriented governments in each successive parliamentary election until the mid-2000s, when the political scene became largely divided between Civic Platform and Law and Justice parties. In a way, these shifts in political sympathies showed a persistence of a reality described by Nowak , dominated by the division between “us” (people) and “them” (the state). But unlike earlier, after 1989 the “us” multiplied and morphed into different groups, often with conflicting interests (e.g. miners, farmers, nurses, teachers), all of which demanded attention and special benefits from the state.17 The alienation of people from the state has remained strong, and the political parties continue to be perceived by the citizens as generally untrustworthy and disinterested in the well-being of society. At the same time it is unclear what this well-being of Poles is supposed to be, since annual reports on Polish households show that Poles are faring increasingly well (Czapiński and Panek 2015).18 Although almost 30 years after the democratic transition people’s social and economic conditions have noticeably improved, according to popular opinion, this positive change cannot be noticed on Poland’s political scene. This sentiment became particularly visible in the 2015 presidential and parliamentary elections, as a result of which the incumbent president, Bronisław Komorowski, from the Civic Platform, was replaced by Andrzej Duda, a largely unknown politician from the right-wing and nationalist Law and Justice party. The parliamentary elections held several months later also brought Law and Justice to power after eight years of the Civic Platform party’s rule. The party’s success was the result of an election campaign that focused on the need for “good change”: social benefits for families, increased job security, and lowering of the retirement age, next to prosecuting supposedly corrupt elites (from the post-Communists to EU enthusiasts, labelled as traitors of Poland) unaware and uninterested in ordinary people’s lives, protecting Poland from refugees, considered Islamist terrorists in disguise, and praising the have-nots, who, according to the party, had been punished by every single government since 1989 (PAP 2015). The most widespread explanation for this unexpected change in power is that Poles grew tired of the Civic Platform’s detachment from reality shared by people who felt they had not benefitted from the post-1989 change. Hence, they cast their ballot for Law and Justice, even if this meant electing radically right-wing and EU-skeptic politicians, largely dependent on the opinions of the conservative Polish Catholic Church (Gdula 2017).19 And indeed, a 2018 survey on the attitudes of Poles toward their surrounding reality showed that most feel Poland has been faring better since 2015 (Wilgocki 2018).

Right-Wing Shifts and “Emergency Voting” for Democracy

As Wiatr notes (2006, p. 239), people whose situation worsened as a result of the economic change often felt unrepresented in the parliament, hence the rising popularity of populist parties,20 which became strongly present at the beginning of the 2000s. Corruption scandals in the post-Communist government led by the Democratic Left Alliance in the first years of the aughts led to a major shift that strengthened the populist right on the political scene. In the parliamentary and presidential elections in 2005, the post-Communist government was replaced by an alliance of right-wing populists with a strongly anti-Communist, nationalist, and often xenophobic agenda. The right-wing Law and Justice and the center-right Civic Platform were parties that received the majority of the votes, having focused their campaigns on the promise to undo the corruption and economic disparity of the post-1989 transition. A major divide between the post-Communist and liberal center-left parties on the one side, and the right-wing populist parties on the other was based on the reluctance of the outgoing Democratic Left Alliance-led government to address the crimes of the Communist past, and eventually doing it very late.21 This delay gave continuous fuel to the ultra-right-wing parties. The new right-wing government formed in 2005 was led by Law and Justice, in coalition with the populist agrarian party, Self-defense, and the Catholic, nationalist, and xenophobic League of Polish Families—a surprise to many observers of the political scene, as it was largely expected that the government would be a center-right coalition of Law and Justice and the Civic Platform. Although the new government branded its political project as building a better, more just “Fourth Polish Republic” (the Third Polish Republic was established in 1989, after the collapse of the Communist regime), it quickly turned into a slur campaign against anyone Law and Justice perceived as an enemy.22

Even though the Law and Justice party did not openly contest the idea of democracy itself, it blamed the post-1989 governments for the loss of extended social security and the rapid growth of economic inequality. In Stefan Nowak’s use of the terms, Law and Justice framed itself as a representative of “us,” people and nation, against “them,” the corrupt state they inherited from previous post-1989 governments. Because it strongly opposed all the previous governing cabinets, the party managed to maintain its message of being “us” even after having formed a government. Although some of the party’s criticisms were valid, many people who considered democratic freedom a fundamental value found the remedies offered by the Law and Justice government unacceptable. These included going back to socialist-style public spending that would cause long-term debt (it took Poland over a decade to pay off its debt from the Communist period); nationalist, conservative, and Church-centered rhetoric merged with a hostile attitude toward the European Union (which Poland had joined only a year earlier); and a return to World War II–like language in treating Russia and Germany as nemeses—a problematic idea especially in regard to the latter, given that post-1989 relations with Germany have been generally considered the best period in the history of the two nations. However, the coalition lasted only two years, as internal clashes and corruption scandals inside the coalition led to the collapse of the government in 2007. A new coalition, this time of the center-right Civic Platform and the agrarian Polish People’s Party, emerged after the elections held that same year. In addition, for the first time in Poland’s recent history, the coalition managed to stay in power for a second term, after the parliamentary elections, held in 2011.23 Nevertheless, after eight years as the major opposition party, Law and Justice managed to successfully repeat its decade-old strategy in the 2015 elections. During the campaign, the party’s rhetoric was additionally strengthened by anti-refugee slurs, for example, of being carriers of germs (sk, mc 2015), which, effectively, fueled people’s fear of Muslim extremists’ terrorist attacks that have become commonplace in Western Europe in the recent years. Another important factor in the Law and Justice party’s victory was its leader, Jarosław Kaczyński. Back in 2005, he became the prime minister, while his twin brother, Lech, was elected as president of Poland that same year. However, he died in a tragic plane crash in 2010, several months before the end of his term, near Smoleńsk in Russia, travelling to commemorate Polish soldiers who had been murdered there by the Soviet army during World War II. While according to all official reports the crash was the result of human error, Law and Justice members claim the catastrophe was orchestrated by Russia together with the Civic Platform.24 Jarosław Kaczyński openly loathes the Civic Platform—for example, he shouted “Do not wipe your treacherous mouths with the name of my late brother. You attacked him, you murdered him, you scoundrels!” during a debate in parliament in 2017 (TVN24 2017) (Fig. 4.1).
Fig. 4.1

Voter turnout during elections in Poland, 1989–2015. (Source of data: National Electoral Commission,

Explanation of chart:

The chart shows all parliamentary and presidential elections held in Poland since 1989, including the 2003 EU accession referendum and local government elections since 2006. Nationwide pro-voting campaigns were held for the first time in Poland before the EU referendum in 2003, while pro-voting campaigns on the internet were held for the first time before the 2006 local government elections.


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left-wing, post-Communist

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center-right liberal

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right-wing, Christian, conservative, post-Solidarity

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mix of populist, right-wing agrarian

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mix of center-left liberal

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mix of conservative and center-liberal

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mix of nationalist, right-wing conservative

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centrist liberal, post-Solidarity

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mix of leftist and economically liberal

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morally conservative, economically liberal


During 14 consecutive elections that took place after 2000, the majority of Poles eligible to vote still usually preferred to stay at home. The exceptions were the 2003 EU referendum (59% voter turnout), 2005 presidential elections (50%), 2007 parliamentary elections (54%), 2010 presidential elections (55%), and the 2015 presidential (55%) and parliamentary (51%) elections, all of which, I argue, were fundamental choices between openness to the outside world and provincial nationalism that threatened the principles of the post-1989 period. In these particular instances, nonvoters chose to cast their ballot as an act of support for Poland’s democratic principles or, most recently, as a sign of anger with a government unwilling to look at or listen to the less well-off citizens.25 Interestingly, according to Szawiel’s (2011) study, nonvoters often not only declare themselves centrist, but also have little faith in democratic rule as such. However, their participation in elections in which parties openly challenging the liberal democratic order have a chance of winning suggests that even if they do not believe in democratic rule, they do believe in democratic ideals. Still, as the 2015 elections showed, this passivity of nearly half of the voters led to the unexpected success of Paweł Kukiz, a punk rock star, political outsider, and anti-state right-wing activist, who landed in third place in the first round of the presidential elections. This unanticipated feat of another right-wing candidate most likely shifted the votes in favor of the Law and Justice party’s candidate, Andrzej Duda, in the second round (Chmielewska-Szlajfer 2018). Apart from situations in which people engage in “emergency voting” not so much for parties but, rather, in support of democracy as such, the large, disinterested center remains a clear indicator that, despite the major political and economic changes, Nowak’s “sociological void” between people and the state remains strong in Polish society almost 30 years later. At the same time, “emergency voting” is an interesting illustration of a broader social imaginary—a practiced belief in the value of the democratic order. However, at present, it is hard not to notice the tension between democratic practice and democracy perceived as a general value. Since its 2015 victory, Law and Justice has been systematically undermining the rule of law, including the Constitutional Tribunal and the judiciary as a whole (Szuleka et al. 2016). At the same time, soon after the elections, a grassroots NGO, the Committee for the Defense of Democracy (Komitet Obrony Demokracji),26 emerged as a result of online conversations held by people worried about the state of Poland’s democracy. It quickly became one of the loudest voices of citizen discontent, gathering tens of thousands of protesters on demonstrations organized in cities all over Poland every couple of weeks since late fall in 2015. However, like numerous citizen campaigns before, the Committee considers itself a fighter for democratic principles, and not an agent with particular political goals.27 Nonetheless, most opposition parties have been present at demonstrations coordinated by the Committee.

Overall, around half of the voters are not interested in the Law and Justice party’s fights with “traitors” of the Polish nation and the Catholic religion, which have become a leading feature in parliamentary debates. One can argue that people have been ignoring the democratic state just as they had ignored the Communist regime before. In their reliance on the capitalist axiom of self-achievement, they often overlook the role of the democratic state as a facilitator of their own private well-being.28 An example of this is that, according to popular opinion, it was not the Polish parliament but the accession requirements and, later, funds coming from the European Union , that led to improvements in people’s lives. The EU, the embodiment of Western Europe, is assumed to be better than Poland. Yet this does not apply to policies related to values such as gay and abortion rights. The right-leaning Poles often view these policies as an attack on the conservative and Catholic values they believe are intrinsically Polish. However, the Law and Justice government treats the European Union as a foreign enemy that tries to impose its laws on a sovereign state. Still, while the majority of the voting public support the Law and Justice party, which has been in open conflict with the EU since the party began undermining the independence of the Polish judiciary,29 people have not forgotten where the freedom to travel, study, and work, and where the money for Poland’s rapid development has been coming from since 2004 (Janicki 2017).

The Polish political scientist Krzysztof Jasiewicz offers an interesting argument about the rise and subsequent fall from power of Law and Justice in 2007, in the context of national community and the state. This explanation also suggests how the party regained its strength eight years later. According to the scholar, the voters’ move in the mid-aughts from support to weariness of nationalism and Catholicism in politics could have been the result of the absence of communities, which would embody these proclaimed Polish-Catholic values (Jasiewicz 2009, p. 506). Thus one could interpret the 2007 collapse of the Law and Justice-led government as caused by the failure to translate the traditionalist values it promoted into actual practice, since nepotism in central and local governments, the lack of transparency, and corruption did not change. Instead of embracing national and Catholic principles as the foundation of the modern Polish civic community, the right-wing government simply replaced local government officials with the party’s loyal supporters. From this point of view, in the 2007 elections the voters contested the long-standing rift between the value of national community, which Law and Justice emphasized, and its absence in people’s everyday lives, despite the right-wing party’s promises. Yet although many then found the political offer of Law and Justice a threat to democracy, it was the first party to make the community—and not the entrepreneurial individual—the foundation of the politics of the Polish state. In 2015, the party learned from its mistakes, and since its recent electoral victory, it has been championing the Polish-Catholic community, setting it against presumed threats coming from the outside world. While the majority of voters support this notion of nationalist, insular community, others openly demonstrate against breaching democratic principles, and increasing corruption, using websites, online forums, and social media to organize protests all over Poland under the banners of the Committee for the Defense of Democracy, Action Democracy (Akcja Demokracja), Strajk Kobiet (Women’s Strike), and other recent grassroots initiatives that emerged since 2015, first online, then on the streets.30

The Emergence of Pro-voting Campaigns

However, already in 1992, long before the emergence of the Committee for the Defense of Democracy, the economist and politician Jerzy Hausner predicted that relying solely on “liberal-monetarist policy (…) will open the way for populist solutions.” (1992, p. 128)31 Hausner’s foresight proved accurate, and the policies led to a major turn to the right on the Polish political scene in the first decades of the twenty-first century. At the same time, this shift in political power also became the trigger for the creation of the first grassroots pro-voting campaign, . During the Law and Justice party’s rule in the aughts, the first signs of the radical right coalition’s demise could be noticed in 2006, when the Law and Justice party’s main competitor, the center-right Civic Platform, received most of the votes in local-government elections. What is particularly noteworthy is that these were the first elections to be accompanied by grassroots pro-voting campaigns—a visible sign of the emergence of internet-aided civic engagement.32 In general, the rise of grassroots civic activism on the internet in the mid-2000s challenges the unenthusiastic observations of the shallow quality of Polish civil society, notable in legislation rather than activity. In a study on watchdog organizations in Poland, Batko-Tołuć and Izdebski (2012, p. 5f.) note that in comparison to 60,000 active NGOs in Poland, the number of NGO watchdogs (around 200)—NGOs that provide news about the activities of state authorities using independent sources of information—is fairly small. However, the birth of countrywide pro-voting campaigns on the internet in the mid-2000s—which were widely advertised by the mass media, including major newspapers, television programs, and internet portals—and the more recent, though less-noticed, development of local internet watchdogs monitoring local self-government and providing space for discussion suggest that civic community-based activity is in fact reemerging. Interestingly, while the former has recently largely transformed into online tools for measuring political preferences,33 the latter has been slowly yet continuously developing in provincial Poland. Here, I focus on these two forms of internet-based civic engagement, one nationwide, the other local, which is exercised thanks to the growth of new spaces for discussion via the internet, a medium that became widely accessible in Poland after 2005.34 As it turns out, in line with the argument made by Habermas—but also Arendt, as well as Cohen and Arato, discussions on local websites are actually easily transformed into meaningful debates, becoming the source of civic power. Thus, local watchdog websites are both public agoras and triggers of change.

On the whole, the sudden rise of civic activity on the internet in the mid-2000s can be linked to at least two circumstances: one political and the other technological. The first, political, is connected with the 2005 parliamentary and presidential elections that brought a right-wing coalition to power, which many viewed as a threat to Poland’s democratic principles. At that time the web became a popular space for people to publicly voice their concerns about the government. The second, technological one, was aided by Poland joining the European Union . While the internet became widespread in urban centers at the end of the 1990s, funds from the European Union and the Polish government’s investments into the national internet infrastructure led to an increase in access as prices dropped and data bandwidth improved. As a result, a significant increase in internet use could be noticed in the Polish countryside after 2005. At the same time, creating and managing websites became easier as many internet companies started offering simple, user-friendly web tools free of charge.

Poland: National Internet Pro-voting Campaigns (I, a grassroots organization, created by ordinary citizens to address issues concerning their local community, was founded in Warsaw in 2005 by four people in their twenties, university students and recent graduates, mostly from the social sciences; they were later joined by several more people. The idea to create the campaign came as a result of their discussions held at a café and discussion club, Chłodna 25—located close to the city center—which hosted weekly meetings for NGOs . The creators of were concerned about liberal-oriented Poles’ disengagement in politics, which translated into poor voter turnout. They believed that making a campaign that presented voting not only as a civic duty, but as an exciting, cheerful experience of participation in a larger community, would be the first step in making people more interested in voting, which they saw as a basic act of civic engagement. According to one of the founders, who now works for a project monitoring the development of civil society in Central-Eastern Europe, creators of thought that if they convinced people to vote, “it would be the first step in political participation and, next, to remember, to keep an eye on the person you voted for.” However, in the interviews I conducted with six of Wybieram .pl’s creators half a decade later,35 they all spoke of this principle as a sign of their youthful naïveté. (An interviewee, now an international relations analyst, claimed, “We were so young, and thought we were doing such important things.”) Since they considered themselves a grassroots civic group and did not want to be accused of representing any particular party’s interests, they decided not to use any outside funding, and instead invested their own modest means in addition to help from friends.

The year 2005 was one of parliamentary and presidential elections in Poland that brought the Kaczyński twins to power. The presidential elections, held several months after the parliamentary ones, also proved a victory for Law and Justice, and dealt an unexpected blow for the Civic Platform, which hoped for the president’s seat after the party’s defeat in parliament. (Interestingly, the pattern repeated itself ten years later, although this time presidential elections preceded parliamentary ones.) Jarosław’s twin brother, Lech, was chosen as the president of Poland. Several months later, before the local-government elections in 2006, members of decided they wanted to target the 51% of eligible voters who did not cast their ballot in the 2005 elections. Despite the focus of Polish scholarship on older nonvoters who remembered the “voting rituals” of the Communist period, Wybieram .pl instead addressed young people who could not remember the pre-1989 political regime, and who—according to available data—also made up a significant number of the nonvoters. In addition, as one of my interviewees admitted, it was easier for them to communicate with people their own age. Nevertheless, was unsuccessful in communicating its message to the poorly educated youth in the Polish province, and the members of the organization quickly realized that their campaigns reached mostly their own friends. In its operations, the organization was inspired by pro-voting campaigns made by Rock the Vote in the United States as well as those carried out by the British Electoral Commission, and these sources were openly displayed on the ’s now defunct website. In the case of Rock the Vote, the creators of were attracted by the internet and television campaigns with celebrities; in regard to the British campaigns, they found inspiration in the clear information design. In comparison, information on candidates and locations of polling stations, published by the Polish Electoral Commission and posted in easily accessible public spaces, such as bus stops and neighborhood street message boards, was poorly designed, making it not only unappealing but also difficult to read. The creators of emphasized that their intention was to make the experience of exercising the basic right of a citizen more attractive, as an initial step in promoting civic participation. From a recent historical standpoint, it is particularly interesting that before significant pro-voting campaigns in Poland had taken place only before the first democratic 1989 parliamentary and 1991 presidential elections, and, later, before the more recent 2003 EU accession referendum in which citizens were asked if Poland should join the European Union . Given the general low voter turnout in several post-1989 elections, the EU voting campaign was necessary: at least 50% of the eligible voters had to cast their ballot to make the referendum binding. The required minimum was surpassed by nine percentage points, making the EU accession referendum the biggest success in terms of voter turnout in elections held in the first decades of the twenty-first century in Poland. However, another of my interviewees, now a policy advisor for an international corporation, stated she believed it was that made voter turnout in Poland a visible issue, which was then picked up by the media and, later on, by other, more professional pro-voting campaigns.

The creators of the pro-voting campaign wanted casting the ballot to be cool, smart, and a part of what they envisioned as the lifestyle of a young urban Polish citizen—which, they admitted, resembled their own. They were well-travelled young men and women from good, often international schools, some of them with previous experience of working for NGOs, while others worked in advertising agencies , television stations, and market research companies. In a way, they embodied a younger generation’s interpretation of “returning to Europe”—the pre-1989 liberal dissidents’ dream. However, it was Europe they had got to know not just from secondhand sources, as their parents often did, but directly as tourists and students abroad. Without the experience of living in the Communist era, they viewed Western Europe—and the European Union as its embodiment—as a clear path to achieve the prosperity, culture, and lifestyle they desired. The members of Wybieram .pl presented a vision of Polish society which was on its way to becoming a Western-style liberal democracy, “a normal democracy,” as one of my interviewees put it, where citizens ordinarily participate in the lives of their local and national communities , and treat activities on behalf of the common good as obvious. In their opinion, participating in elections was the starting point necessary to achieve this ambitious goal. They did not share the fear of Germany or Russia, which fueled nationalist, xenophobic tendencies. Neither did they have a memory of ritualistic voting that undermined the older generation’s faith in the very purpose of elections. In many ways, they were an urban, well-educated young elite coming from affluent homes of the middle class that had prospered in post-1989 Poland. They refused to accept the learned indifference toward elections shown by people who had lived under Communist rule, and by those who blamed the new democratic state for their hardship. The members of considered the act of voting more important than voicing discontent by abstaining, even if, as one of them acknowledged, “there was no-one to vote for.” They focused on the importance of voting as a principle; yet it was hard not to notice that their campaign, launched soon after the election of the 2005 Law and Justice-led government, could be easily read as yet another voice challenging the populist right-wing coalition.

Using their modest private funds, first created a paper informational poster. It included excerpts from interviews with newly elected members of the parliament who had campaigned in Warsaw, an idea one of the members had brought back from Australia. The posters hung on the walls in a dozen or so cafés in Poland’s capital in 2005. The next campaign, which took place before the 2006 local government elections, was directly inspired by the Rock the Vote campaigns: created a number of YouTube videos showing young people wearing T-shirts with the organization’s name. In the short clips, they presented arguments as to why it makes sense to vote, such as “Because I can,” “Because it’s close by,” and “Because I care.” The YouTube videos were preceded by street campaigns in major Polish cities, where handed out sheets of printing paper with images of empty cartoon bubbles to be filled out by passersby with ideas as to why one should cast a ballot. These handwritten statements by ordinary citizens were later used in the videos. The campaign, which merged grassroots online and offline activities, turned out to be a success, and the YouTube spots got thousands of views.

Interlude: Rock the Vote Online Campaigns

One of the key inspirations for Wybieram .pl, Rock the Vote was founded in the United States in 1990 by members of the music industry and headed by Jeff Ayeroff, the co-chair of Virgin Records. Rock the Vote was created as an answer to the Parents Music Resource Center, an organization founded five years earlier by four so-called Washington Wives, including Tipper Gore, wife of then senator Al Gore. The goal of Parents Music Resource Center was to campaign for parental control over children’s access to music that was deemed violent and sexually explicit. (One of the organization’s biggest successes was persuading the Recording Industry Association of America to adopt the “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content” sticker that can still be found on music records today.) Thus, Rock the Vote’s initial goal was to fight what they considered government censorship in the music industry. However, the organization soon transformed into a project focused on encouraging voter registration and inspiring young people to vote as a way of shaping their own political power (Smith 2007; Birkner 2016). In order to do so, the organization used the help of celebrities, for the most part musicians and actors, and established a partnership with MTV, which in the pre-internet era was hugely popular among young people. “It’s a political movement that started with Madonna. In 1990, a bikini-clad Material Girl wrapped in an American flag urged MTV viewers to vote by rapping about Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, switching up the lyrics of her then hit song ‘Vogue,’” journalist Christine Birkner (2016) wrote in a feature on Rock the Vote. In the organization’s first pro-voting campaign, in 1992—during the Clinton, Bush, and Perot presidential campaigns—Rock the Vote ran public service announcements with major music stars such as Madonna, Aerosmith, and R.E.M. In addition, the organization distributed “Voters’ Guides” with instructions on how to register to vote. In the following year the organization helped pass the Motor Voter Bill, which allowed people to register to vote at the same time that they applied for their driver’s license. Subsequently, in 1996, Rock the Vote created the first phone system for voter registration, 1-800-REGISTER, and three years later the first online system. Since then, Rock the Vote has been expanding its outreach with the help of celebrities (from LL Cool J and Iggy Pop to Miley Cyrus and Kendall Jenner) and different media platforms, including television ads, YouTube videos, and, recently, the dating app Tinder.

As a result, since 1990, Rock the Vote has registered millions of young voters in the United States, from the Generation X born in the 1970s, to more recently the Millennials, people born in the 1980s and 1990s; the latter constituted around a quarter of the electorate in the 2008 and 2016 US presidential elections. In addition, Rock the Vote campaigns included projects such as the television forum for Democratic Presidential Candidates, “America Rocks the Vote” in 2003, which was made in cooperation with the news channel, CNN (Mckinney and Banwart 2005). However, in 2008, after one of Rock the Vote’s founders made a donation to Barack Obama’s campaign, the officially non-partisan organization became the subject of heavy criticism for its pro-Obama bias. Nonetheless, it continued its celebrity-heavy media campaigns, including the #WeWill campaign during the 2012 presidential elections (the hashtag being a clear sign of the importance of Twitter and other social media) and the #CareLikeCrazy campaign during the 2014 midterm elections. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Rock the Vote went even further in its use of social media. Firstly, under the slogan “Truth to Power,” the organization collaborated with Virgin America, making it possible for people to register to vote using in-flight WiFi. Secondly, Tinder users “Swiped the Vote” by selecting particular issues on the dating app. Interestingly, Bernie Sanders got the most Tinder matches (37.8%), Hillary Clinton came in a close second (37.6%), while, in comparison, Donald Trump received only 8.1%, behind another Republican candidate, Ted Cruz (14.3%) (Birkner 2016).

Still, the celebrity and social media–filled Rock the Vote campaigns have been criticized for the very methods used to make voting attractive to young people. A 1997 article in “The New Republic” described them as “politically dim 24-year-olds [wanting] to party with rock stars” and “The Kid Who Wants To Be on MTV,” while celebrities were “emptyheaded” and desiring “legitimacy by pretending they know something about politics” (Glass 1997, p. 16). Over a decade later, “The New York Times” revealed that many of the celebrities who took part in the Rock the Vote campaigns “had not bothered to vote for years,” while “the campaigns of civic involvement quickly became vehicles for product placement, a way for music companies and corporations to find the marketing sweet spot of people ages 18 to 29” (Dwyer 2008, p. A19). Thus, as the media scholars Mckinney and Banwart emphasize, the implicit allegation was that Rock the Vote’s promotion of voting as a “‘cool’ thing to do” produced low-quality voters.36 The fact that a “gamer could ask his or her Xbox to e-mail a registration application” was “The New York Times’s” major charge against Rock the Vote, as if registering to vote was supposed to be an arduous task, and making the process easier for Millennials would produce a previously unseen cohort of uninformed voters. One may assume that the underlying idealistic assumption voiced in such criticisms is that voters generally pay attention to politics before casting their ballot.37 Another criticism, this time voiced by political and media scholars Martin Cloonan and John Street, is that in an “era … marked by the presence of a ‘permanent campaign’ in which the mass media provides both the forum for, and the content of, political persuasion” (1998, p. 33). According to these authors, Rock the Vote produces mere “consumers” of politics and cherry-picking single-issue voters (e.g. for abortion rights, gay marriage, environmental protection), disinterested in a broader, more complex political outlook. These authors also point out the consumer-oriented brand alliances with Rock the Vote’s pro-voting campaigns. While Cloonan and Street mention a bank, a beer brand, an insurance company, and a record retailer, a decade later the newspaper lists a mobile phone service provider and a gaming console brand. From this point of view, politicians can only hope to be as effective in communicating with young people as these brands are. In fact, in their analysis of the 2003 joint CNN and Rock the Vote debate among Democratic presidential candidates, Mckinney and Banwart discovered three frames used by politicians attempting to employ consumer-style branding in political rhetoric: the first way of framing the discussion in order to appeal to young voters is to emphasize their unique insight and expertise that older people do not have; the second frame concerns the fact that their voices have been ignored (until now); the third mode focuses on the optimistic message that young people have the power to change the world. According to the authors, the CNN/Rock the Vote debate was indeed effective in expanding the political engagement of young voters. The most recent statistics show that in 2016 the organization registered well over four hundred thousand people to vote, proving the continued success of Rock the Vote’s campaigns.

The Professionalization of Pro-voting Campaigns

The 2006 elections to local self-government in Poland, held a year after the victory of the Law and Justice-led coalition, gave power in local governments to the center-right Civic Platform, then (and once again, after the 2015 elections) the biggest opposition party in the Polish parliament. What’s more, in 2007, a corruption scandal in the Self-defense party, member of the government coalition, led to the collapse of the right-wing government, and suddenly, new parliamentary elections had to be held. Wybieram .pl, inspired by the success of its 2006 YouTube spots, repeated the pro-voting campaign; however, this time with the help of major Polish celebrities, actors, and popular television hosts who agreed to take part in the project free of charge. This time, the videos not only went viral on the internet but were also shown on television. Whether it was the influence of pro-voting campaigns or people’s exhaustion with the aggressive ideological rhetoric of the Law and Justice-led government, the voter turnout was 54%, over 10 percentage points higher than in the 2006 local elections—and 14 percentage points higher than in the 2005 parliamentary elections—making Civic Platform, which presented itself as moderate and balanced, a clear winner in the 2007 parliamentary elections. Given that the right-wing, traditionalistic Catholic electorate has been generally more disciplined in terms of voting than other groups—and the Polish priests are known to advise who to vote for at Sunday Mass (Law and Justice)—pro-voting campaigns were largely seen as supporting the Civic Platform. Thus, despite the fact that Wybieram .pl fought to maintain its non-partisan status and refused donation offers from organizations with any trace of political affinity, the organization was often accused of using party sponsorship. And although it was only one of many factors during the 2007 electoral campaign, the outcome of its activities led to higher results of the centrist party, known for having a generally less-disciplined voter base (Szawiel 2011).

Still, regardless of Wybieram .pl’s influence, by the time of the 2007 elections, the idea of pro-voting campaigns was taken up by other organizations. According to people who worked with Wybieram .pl, these other institutions had better funding and were better organized. In addition, unlike them, Wybieram .pl was reluctant to take money in order to avoid accusations of political bias, but its members were also unfamiliar with the administrative work necessary for the functioning of NGOs or even small associations. One of the staff members confessed, “We were sure we’d end up in jail because we had no idea how to deal with paperwork.” Also in 2007, a larger pro-voting campaign targeted at young voters using the slogan Zmień kraj, idź na wybory (Change the Country, Go Vote), was carried out under the banner of Masz głos, masz wybór (You Have a Vote, You Have a Choice).38 This was a project funded by the Stefan Batory Foundation, a major Polish grant-awarding NGO established in 1988 and associated with the American Hungarian–born financier and philanthropist George Soros. The campaign was made possible thanks to a broad coalition of different NGOs, including PKPP Lewiatan, one of the largest business-oriented associations in Poland; Jurek Owsiak’s Grand Orchestra of Christmas Charity; and several others. Unlike Wybieram .pl, this campaign was created by a professional advertising agency, and included television, radio, press, and internet ads, all published free of charge . Change the Country, Go Vote hosted talks with candidates in a number of Polish cities, by far surpassing the reach of Wybieram .pl. Although my interviewees emphasized that they were the first organization to focus on voter turnout in Poland, they admitted they were too young, too inexperienced, and too busy with other jobs to do this pro bono work professionally, and to be active on a local level in between elections as the better-funded campaigns that emerged later did. In this sense, Wybieram .pl is a typical example of turning amateur civic activity into a professionalized, recurring civic practice. However, the organization succeeded not only in establishing a new “tradition” of pro-voting campaigns during election season in Poland, but also in offering a whole new image of voting as a lifestyle choice of the modern Polish citizen, and, more importantly, in using the internet as a tool for civic engagement.

Elections to the European Parliament held in 2009 were the last that Wybieram .pl was engaged in, as its members dissolved the organization soon afterwards to pursue their academic careers, or engage in other NGOs or professional work. Pro-voting actions were also carried out by the organization Masz głos, masz wybór (You Have a Vote, You Have a Choice), which took up the task of encouraging youth voters by organizing discussions at high schools and colleges. Although during those elections voter turnout again went down to 25%, the situation changed radically after the 2010 governmental plane crash in Russia, in which president Lech Kaczyński and 95 other high-ranking Polish officials died. The presidential campaign that quickly followed that year was accompanied by strong accusations of the governing Civic Platform of treason and conspiracy with the Russians, launched by Law and Justice and its supporters.39 It was unclear whether the hostile political climate would be enough to motivate people to cast their ballots. Furthermore, since the 2010 presidential elections were held in the summer, a time when people usually travel for holidays, the task of encouraging citizens to vote was particularly challenging for the pro-voting campaigns. Although Wybieram .pl was no longer functioning, other organizations took up the task of encouraging youth voters, uploading viral pro-voting videos with celebrities on the web, and spreading their message on social media—mostly Facebook and the Polish social networking website, Nasza Klasa (Our Class), which was widely used in Poland at the end of the aughts.40

Pro-voting activity mushroomed among different organizations that year: Mam Prawo Wiedzieć (I Have a Right to Know), an organization created by some of the former members of Wybieram .pl, aimed at providing information on the candidates to increase the number of voters. To do so, they launched the “Gdziekolwiek będziesz, zagłosuj” (“Wherever You’ll Be, Vote”) pro-voting campaign. At the same time, the Center for Civic Education, a major NGOs and partner of the I Have a Right to Know campaign, launched Latarnik Wyborczy (Electoral Lamplighter), a website where one could compare the candidates’ views on different political issues. In Krakow, journalists associated with the daily “Gazeta Wyborcza,” together with artists and businessmen, created still another foundation, called Twój Świat Ma Sens (Your World Is Meaningful). Among other things, it sponsored celebrity-filled YouTube videos for the organization’s campaign Twój głos ma sens (Your Vote Is Meaningful),41 a clear extension of Wybieram .pl’s idea. As in the case of Wybieram .pl campaigns, the higher turnout of the less disciplined voters—who were also less ideologically driven by right-wing rhetoric—meant that the centrist candidate had a better chance of winning. And indeed, the Civic Platform party’s presidential candidate, Bronisław Komorowski beat Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the Law and Justice party, and brother of the deceased Lech Kaczyński, by six percentage points (52–46%), while the total voter turnout was 55%. Interestingly, the pro-voting campaigns were much less visible during the 2015 elections. Perhaps for this reason, or perhaps because of the main candidates’—notably Andrzej Duda’s and Paweł Kukiz’s—own heavy use of social media (Chmielewska-Szlajfer 2018), the Law and Justice party won.

Nevertheless, the numerous pro-voting campaigns that emerged after the initial spark from Wybieram .pl were largely successful in engaging centrist—often disinterested—citizens to vote, showing that mass-media appeal can translate into basic civic participation. Still, one can argue that it was once again not so much a triumph of civic engagement but a victory of centrist values and the principle of democracy as such over nationalist and Catholic ideals. The campaigns rarely aimed at meaningful discussion, focusing instead on voter turnout. However, the hope was—as one of the members of Wybieram .pl explained—that the habit of taking part in elections would lead to greater interest in civic activity in the long run. While, today, civic engagement may be on the rise, as the Committee for the Defense of Democracy suggests, it is still a fight for the enforcement of basic democratic ideals.

Election Smart-Voting on the Internet: From National to Local

Despite the success of Wybieram .pl, some of the people behind it believed that, in terms of civic engagement, the mere idea of encouraging citizens to vote was not enough if the candidates and their views remained unknown. Those members who found the organization’s goal too limited, split to create a different, albeit related project , Mam Prawo Wiedzieć (I Have a Right to Know). “We felt it was not enough to say ‘go vote’. But not enough for whom and why? It was unclear,” one of the co-creators of I Have a Right to Know stated. The project was a website designed to collect and present information about candidates taking part in nationwide elections as well as about the activities, such as votes and official statements, of the elected members of the parliament and local governments. Data for the site was based on official information provided by the candidates and on the organization’s own questionnaires, which included around forty questions, some of them open-ended. This concept was also inspired by an American source, Project Vote Smart, an internet portal that provides information on candidates running for public offices.42 The US non-profit focuses on political views, voting records, and public statements of the candidates, presenting them in a clear, streamlined format that makes it easier for voters to decide upon which candidate to choose. Members of I Have a Right to Know wanted to adapt this model for the needs of Polish citizens.

In my interview, Róża Rzeplińska, an ethnographer, NGO activist, and the head of I Have a Right to Know in her mid-thirties, explained how the process of collecting data from the candidates has been changing since the mid-aughts, a result of the growth of the popularity of the internet in Poland. According to her, in 2005, many of the MP candidates not only did not own an e-mail address, but—perhaps ironically—were reluctant to give their opinions on political issues their voters could be interested in. One possible reason for this was that the candidates did not, in fact, formulate their own opinions, depending on their political parties to present official views on particular topics instead. Another plausible explanation was that expressing any concrete opinions could alienate some of the potential voters. Since elections after 1989 in Poland have been often centered on general values rather than particular topics, presenting views on specific issues could prove a trap for the candidates if they did not keep their promises after having been elected. In comparison, relying on generic values seems a much safer strategy. As a result, initially, only about 10% of the I Have a Right to Know questionnaires were filled out and sent back by the MP candidates. Interestingly, Rzeplińska discovered that the right-wing candidates, especially from the nationalist League of Polish Families, were far more tech-savvy than candidates from other parties, a stark contrast to their generally anti-modernist views. Still, if one considers that, at the time, left-wing parties had a strong local presence inherited from the Communist past, and did not consider communication via the internet essential in approaching voters, the visibility of right-wing parties—lacking such an advantage—on the web was not that unexpected. Although at present I Have a Right to Know still faces some problems with obtaining information from the candidates, Rzeplińska notices major progress. According to her, it is the effect of the wider availability of the internet. The candidates have become aware that their potential voters want to have the possibility of finding information about them on the internet and want to know how to contact them, a change that can be interpreted as the citizens’ increased interest in political engagement. At the same time, politicians have discovered that the internet, particularly social media such as Twitter and Facebook, are useful tools for engaging in more direct contact with a broader public and a way to bypass traditional media outlets. This shift in attitudes can also be noticed in the website’s statistics: according to Rzeplińska, although the site is usually visited by around 1,000 users a day, during electoral season, the number goes up to around a million. The growing numbers of visitors suggest that in Poland the internet is increasingly used to find information on civic issues. (For example, after the website was mentioned by Bronisław Komorowski in a widely watched televised debate with Andrzej Duda during the 2015 presidential campaign, the site crashed because of the sudden surge in traffic.) Still, although the website made by I Have a Right to Know was originally intended as a source of information for citizens to become—paraphrasing Alfred Schütz’s (1946) famous term—well-informed voters, the information provided there is used primarily by journalists who write about electoral campaigns. Rzeplińska emphasizes that the website can be useful for citizens when they see the purpose of voting as not just casting a ballot once every couple of years but as a continued effort of checking up on what their elected representatives are doing and, in essence, how they are living up to their promises. Although another member of I Have a Right to Know admits that the database the website provides may be “boring” for the average voter, Rzeplińska argues that people become interested in the site and in their elected representatives when they see how the database relates to their local political context. To promote the website, she organizes special workshops in cities around Poland every couple of months. While I Have a Right to Know is not used as a daily tool, it serves as an archive of political memory, which citizens can use to check on the activities of the politicians they elected. As such, the website is an instrument that facilitates civic engagement. Interestingly, even if people do not use it often to find information on MPs, it is much more often used by local communities on their own online forums.

Local Watchdog Websites: Sites for Civil Society

In contrast to the poor voter turnout in elections, local civic engagement has emerged in a space unnoticed by most Polish research on civil society—namely, the internet.43 Mainstream Polish scholarship has focused on civil society in traditionally envisioned, institutionalized physical spaces such as meetings in town halls. Yet one can notice the growth of such activity in the virtual space going beyond mere clicks, and with consequences that reach beyond the internet itself. Michał Danielewicz and Paweł Mazurek (2012), social scientists studying youth and media in Poland, argue that the emergence of independent local websites in the late aughts led to an increase in civic participation in small towns throughout Poland.44 When focused on a relatively small scale, the sites turn into local watchdogs that provide independent news, fact-check information provided by the authorities, inform about corruption, and monitor public spending. Contrary to observed apathy on the national level, Danielewicz and Mazurek argue that web-mediated discussions centered around local matters actively engage citizens. Thus, if the nineteenth-century civil society described by Habermas was made out of salons as spaces for discussion and newspapers as mediums of opinion, contemporary civil society emerging in provincial Poland has the world wide web, serving both as medium and as a public space for open deliberation. On a general level, the internet gives “a right to be seen,” which Daniel Dayan frames as a power performed by “visibility entrepreneurs” (2013, p. 149). They are people who challenge the dominant media by making their own opinions public and, in doing so, reshaping existing discussions. In this sense, the local websites are their own visibility entrepreneurs who challenge information provided by official local self-government sources, by creating and showing their own points of view. The websites provide independent commentary on the activities of local authorities, serving as spaces for conversation for the local citizens, who discuss news posts in the comments sections located under articles, and start their own conversations on the website forums. By providing the opportunity to voice one’s opinion, the websites become spaces where visibility is practiced. There, people can not only present their own definitions of situations, as discussed by Dayan , but also exercise autonomy from the dominant information sources, as pointed out by Manuel Castells (2012). What’s more, despite the seeming media saturation of the internet, these sites provide information that is otherwise lacking, even though it is in demand. This can be noticed in the numbers of comments under articles covering local topics, in some cases reaching several hundred.45 While major Polish internet media outlets provide national or regional news, the local websites fill the need for information that is otherwise overlooked. Interestingly, these portals do not fight for visibility with the major media, but rather supplement them where the latter are absent.46 By showing particular topics, the websites make them appear, as Arendt would put it, in public discussion. Secondly, the sites provide an alternative space to be informed, to speak in the form of forum posts and article comments, and to be seen by others who visit these portals. Zizi Papacharissi (2010), a scholar of communication, notes that the “digitally enabled citizens” can emancipate themselves in the private spaces offered by information and communication technologies, because they provide platforms that can be used for public discussions related to a common good. Papacharissi argues, and Polish local watchdog websites show, that the private sphere of the internet may be more effective in fostering public debate precisely because it is personal, unlike the official and institutionalized public domain.47 As such, the websites lend a sense of familiarity and ownership—an intimate “us” in contrast to the alien and official “them.” Discussions held on these watchdog websites often focus on shared goals to benefit the community, from electing mayors and heads of local cultural centers to designing road crossings and asking about needed stores.48 This extends conversations beyond the sphere of personal ties and interests, making them civic, even if the people involved do not label them as such.

Local Civic Engagement Supported by Anonymity

By treating local websites as a cross between public forums visible to all and semi-private spaces for local gossip, participants in the internet discussions49 feel they are safe places to voice their concerns, particularly those concerning the activities of local authorities and questionable hires for state-paid jobs.50 This mix of public openness and privacy that the internet offers grants the courage to speak out, which might not be possible at official meetings with authorities. Thus, what these local websites offer is the power to be heard while maintaining a sense of anonymity, even if the participants of such discussions claim one can guess the real persons behind their nicknames. Furthermore, they serve as testing grounds where supporters and opponents of different issues can be found; this is particularly visible in discussions on candidates for official posts, but may also concern a local newspaper that some commenters label a tabloid.51 In essence, the portals become community platforms that put issues in view while to some extent hiding the identities of their advocates. In comparison with popular national Polish portals, such as and, which are known for attracting hateful anonymous commenters,52 anonymous discussions on the local websites, generally fairly polite, appear strikingly civil and relevant. A possible reason for this civility on these local websites may lie in the fact that the discussed issues are familiar enough for the locals to have actual insight. Even discussions on heated topics—more often than not concerning state-paid jobs—include comments offering details on local regulations, times of meetings, and, occasionally, family ties between local authorities.53 Given the rise of civic engagement in towns, which have both official portals and independent websites for their local communities , the combination of the visibility of issues and the obscurity of persons who voice them proves effective in fostering local involvement in matters related to the community.

Interestingly, even if the locals actively influence allocation in the budgets of their larger territorial self-governments, or force the local authorities to talk with a neighboring town across the border about the consequences of its plans to construct an incineration plant, they openly refuse to call this engagement “political,” restricting the use of the term to the practices of local authorities. Instead, they argue that what they are doing is related to the social or cultural issues of their communities . Nonetheless, it is an activity Cohen and Arato would likely label civic engagement. What makes the theoretical argument on civic engagement in relation to these websites even stronger is the fact that their creators emphasize a sense of responsibility for providing unbiased information about local authorities and events. In some cases, the very existence of these portals becomes a civic issue for the communities when local authorities, unhappy with the articles and discussions posted there, attempt to ban the sites. In this sense, the visibility of local issues, and of the informed discussions these websites provide, present a vivid example of civil society in practice. According to Goldfarb, these actions are “the engine of the politics of small things” (2006, p. 8), that is, the power to shape people’s own reality through daily practices that undermine dominant interpretations. What is particularly noteworthy is that this everyday community-shaping, civic activity takes place outside what is typically defined as “civil society” in Poland, which in the popular imagination is either related to the political society or to the activities of professionalized NGOs . These often make civic engagement look like an occupation that requires advanced skills, alienating the concept and practice from the average person. Instead, on these websites, people engage in online discussions on local issues because they find them important, and in their demands for transparency, fairness, and competence from their authorities they reveal what they want from their community. As a result, local internet watchdogs in fact “practice” civic activity, but without naming it as such.

Local Internet Watchdogs and Local Authorities: From Hostility to Cooperation

According to official data, the number of NGOs that engage in watchdog activities—that is, in “civic oversight over public authorities (…) or civic oversight over the ethics of big business”54—is about 200, a figure considered relatively small in Polish surveys. However, local watchdog portals are often private, uninstitutionalized projects that are not categorized as NGOs ; hence, the actual number of watchdogs may be higher., the main Polish site providing information on such monitoring bodies, currently lists over 250 local watchdog websites, all created after 2005, and many of them based on free web templates.55 Yet these local websites rarely start off as watchdogs. Information on the activities of local officials becomes a part of the sites as a consequence of demand that people voice on the sites’ comment sections. Here I offer five examples of such websites to present this process of “watchdogization” of local websites. Each of them shows a different type of relationship between the citizens and local authorities in terms of visibility of public issues, openness of the authorities to criticism, and their willingness to cooperate with citizens. The first example of evolution in terms of watchdog activity is the now defunct website , . The site was created in 2011 by two former urban professionals who decided to move to Dziemiany, a northern, picturesque village inhabited by 4,000 people, and famous for its lakes and forests. The village, with an elementary and middle school, a library, a local cultural center, and a church, caters to tourists, mostly Polish and German. It offers relaxation close to nature in stylized wooden cottages (which are rented out in the summer season), food from local organic farms, as well as horse-riding courses. Initially the website was aimed at tourists, but residents soon started to use the site to ask about local issues. Interestingly, changes on the website were the result of criticism from people who wanted to know about the problems with the local landfill rather than about the beauty of the local forest.56 After the suggestion of an online commenter, the website’s authors began to cover meetings of the local government, and these were later discussed by the locals on the site. Eventually the portal became so popular that some people learned to use the internet just to be able to take part in the online debates (Danielewicz and Mazurek describe an older woman forced to do so when her daughter, who usually posted the comments for her, was away).57 The creators of the website provided news on the activities of local authorities, openly criticizing excessive spending—including the construction of a bread oven for 50,000 zlotys (around 14,500 dollars), more than five times the usual price—or the closing of a village preschool.58 The portal frequently challenged the practices of the local government, such as introducing debt relief to taxpayers when the village lacked funds for power generators, or ignoring leaks at a local purification plant. Although the commenters did not always agree with the articles written in a somewhat harsh tone, the posts fueled discussions on issues concerning the local community.

However, the popularity of the portal proved destructive for the site itself. Officials believed it undermined their authority, which had not been openly put to question before. They did not feel they should be held accountable for their actions outside of election season, arguing that a chosen government should administer without being watched. Thus, at the end of 2011, a couple of months after the website was launched, the local authorities chose to block it, rather than take into account the opinions of the citizens that were made visible thanks to the site. Not only decision-making, but even the openly voiced interpretations of the local reality were to remain the privilege of the local government. In order to do so, the administration and elected officials aimed to preserve the divide between “us” and “them,” blocking the space for open discussion in the community. Briefly put, the authorities were afraid of the change the site’s discussions could inspire. The village head accused the website of slander after a series of articles was published that revealed cases of nepotism and corruption. The police gathered data on the commenters and disclosed their identity, using internet posts made by an anonymous commenter asking for a revolution in the local government as a pretext. The case was later reported in a major regional newspaper (Wajer 2011). The investigation that followed led to a sharp decrease in the website discussions (at the site’s peak popularity, articles received around a hundred comments), and in June 2013, the website closed down its local news section, limiting its activity to what it had started with, information for tourists.59 In the final post on the site, the creators of expressed their frustration with the citizens’ lack of will to change the local government, which had treated the website and its users as enemies, and criticism of their governance as an attempted coup.

Still, a similar reaction of the local government in Kalwaria Zebrzydowska ended less dramatically for the local website, (Our Kalwaria). In the small town in southern Poland, with fewer than 4,500 residents and famous for its seventeenth-century monastery, the mayor demanded the administrators of the site remove negative comments about him and about his political performance, but they refused. A court judgment—one that was covered by major media in Poland as a case on the freedom of speech—cleared the website of charges of slander, ruling that the portal did not present “press material,” and therefore administrators could not be treated as editors responsible for the site’s content. (Similar rulings were issued in 2016 in relation to (Transparent Przedbórz) and Nonetheless, internet discussions of the town’s residents had to be defended against a local authority by another official authority, namely the court. Although the citizens who engaged in online discussions were, similar to the case of , treated as a threat rather than partners, the court supported their right to free expression. In fact, the ruling empowered the administrators and users of the website, which has since remained strongly involved in reporting on local politics.60 However, the citizens’ interest in the activities of the authorities did not lead to greater transparency of the decision-making process of the local officials or to a more open discussion. In this particular case, the rights of citizens were retained not because the local government decided to take their opinions into account, but because the citizens were supported by a superior official body. Hence, in these two instances civic engagement turned into a political conflict over the right to present issues concerning the community. Using Dayan’s term, the citizens had to engage in a legal fight over their “right of showing.” It was thus a confrontation between the critical citizens demanding insight and inclusion in power, and the authorities unaccustomed and unwilling to being held accountable on a daily basis.

The website proved more successful as a site of civic activity. Similar to , it was launched as a politics-free portal to provide, as its creators put it, free information and enjoyment, and to integrate the local community.61 Focused on Wronki, a town in Western Poland with about 11,500 residents, and best known for its washing machine and refrigerator production plant, initially the website covered music and sports, the key interests of its two teenage creators, who were disappointed with the music events organized by the local self-government.62 However, unlike the case of and , the critical reviews of cultural and sports events published on triggered stronger cooperation between the website’s users and the local cultural center, a state-owned institution that hosts numerous events in the town. As a result, the website expanded its scope to cover the activities of local institutions, such as the town hall, the voluntary fire brigade, and the town’s schools. Based on web statistics, the site became a significant local news outlet: a local flood in 2010 confirmed this notion, as the site became the prime source of information both for the locals, and for the national media. Still, the reason for the website’s peaceful coexistence with the local authorities may lie in the fact that its news and commentaries rely chiefly on official information provided by institutions, rather than the site’s own critical assessment. The only time the portal adopted its own clear stance on a political issue was when the website’s administrators voiced support against ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement)63 at the end of 2012. The multinational treaty sparked large protests in cities in Poland, unseen in years. The protests gathered predominantly internet-savvy young people, such as the creators of, who feared the treaty would infringe their right to privacy and freedom of expression on the web by allowing internet providers to share information about their users with companies without court approval. As a result of the heated anti-ACTA protests held by thousands of young people in cities all over the country, the Polish government decided not to ratify the treaty, and it was dropped by the European Parliament several months later. Interestingly, one can notice that these protests, organized in reaction to the danger of the infringement of citizens’ right to privacy, bear some similarity—in their principled nature—to emergency voting, practiced when democratic foundations are seen as threatened.

The motivation of the web users and the local authorities in Wronki to work together on cultural and sports events remains in stark contrast to the less successful attempts to discuss political and economic issues on the two other portals. The success of civic engagement in a non-political sphere in Wronki—the website does not question the existing power—suggests that local authorities are capable of cooperating with citizens, as long as the officials do not view people’s opinions as an attack on their authority. This particular example indicates that cultural activity, such as organizing pop music concerts or sports events for youth, may be an effective platform for citizens and local authorities to meet. While some form of cooperation in other spheres is also conceivable, it is more likely to happen if the citizens do not question the authority of the local government.

The case of is a still different example of relations between the citizens and the government. The website, launched in 2010, as those mentioned previously, started off by providing basic cultural and historical information about the area. The site is dedicated to Wojcieszyce, a village with fewer than 1,000 residents, located in northwest Poland close to the Baltic Sea. Yet it soon developed into a portal presenting information about the history of the region, the local school and sports club, and current events in the village.64 In an interview with Danielewicz and Mazurek, the author of the site, in his fifties, explained he wanted to change the website from a showcase into a medium that allowed other people to participate. The portal’s message board became a popular tool used by the local citizens to discuss issues such as the proposed design of the village’s flag and emblem, and the consequences of changing local laws for the village budget. It is also used by the village head, who began to publish official posts there. She claims the internet message board was more reliable than the wooden one standing in the village, vulnerable both to the weather and children who liked to tear off the paper posts. is unique also because it publishes a significant number of documents about local finances.65 However, the website publishes documents of this kind and holds open discussions about them because the creator of is a member of the village council and the husband of the village head. Thus, the website merges official authority of the wife with the husband’s citizen engagement, resulting in a form of nepotism that is favorable to the community. Although the site is a positive example of civic cooperation between the citizens and the authorities, the ties that foster these harmonious relations are, in this case, exceptionally close. Indeed, the author of openly states that the (literal) marriage of the local authority and the civic activist makes access to official information easier. From this point of view, civic engagement in the village is dependent on private access to the source of political power.

On the whole, citizens notice improvement in the local governments’ behavior as the effect of the visibility of internet discussions on the local websites. For example, a bus stop smeared with spray-paint was repainted a day after the topic was raised on one of the portals, while a pedestrian crossing was made on a county (powiat) road after the mayor of the commune presented citizens’ online support for the project at a county meeting. Danielewicz and Mazurek note that the websites that had existed before the 2010 local government elections became widely used and influential public forums, which the candidates for local government positions have to consider in their campaigns. This, for example, was the case of the local website of the small town of Tłuszcz in central Poland. It is located northeast from Warsaw and less than an hour’s drive from the capital, home to about 7,500 residents and a railway hub. In 2010, the authors of (Tłuszcz Station) sent out a vote-smart questionnaire created by I Have a Right to Know to the candidates for local government posts. After initial reluctance, nearly all of the candidates answered the questions, which was a much better result when compared to candidates running for central government posts. In general, this wide response suggests that civic engagement is more effective on the local scale, where the practical outcomes of local self-government activity are more immediate and more visible than those on the national level. It also shows the potential for collaboration between local watchdog websites, engaged in the monitoring of local self-governments, and smart-vote initiatives, with the goal of raising the awareness of citizens about their elected representatives. In most cases, independent local websites, providing an alternative to official ones (here, with the exception of Wojcieszyce), reveal people’s desire to shape their own community using online visibility. Yet what is particularly important, is that in doing so, these people no longer ignore the state, as Nowak claimed they did still in the 1980s. On the contrary, not only do these citizens notice local power, they demand that it fit their ideals of how democratic local self-government should perform. And in contrast to the national level, in their local communities they care to be well informed, to know what political promises are made and should be kept.

The Ordinary People’s Public Sphere

The concept of the public sphere formulated by Habermas is particularly helpful in the context of Polish local websites. The scholar writes that it is “a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed,” and to which all citizens have access. What’s more, “A portion of the public sphere, Habermas continues, comes into being in every conversation in which private individuals assemble to form a public body.” The public sphere Habermas writes about facilitates communication, but it “requires specific means for transmitting information and influencing those who receive it” (1974, p. 49). Indeed, Polish local websites show that the internet is a useful medium for communication as Habermas envisions it. This technology simultaneously enables transmission and discussion, and it reshapes the way public-centered communication becomes visible, while the individual’s online identity may be hidden from others. On the one hand, leaving only a comment and a username allows conversations to be entirely free, but on the other, it may diminish the responsibility of the website users for their own words. However, for small communities , the fact of talking to neighbors informed about local issues makes the discussions relevant. In addition, because everyone is equally faceless but the context is local and access to information, given the small scale, potentially broader, the website can turn into a space for argument-based deliberation. At the same time, these examples point at another, albeit related issue raised by Habermas, the “plebeian public sphere.” The public sphere of the lower strata, unlike that formed by the bourgeoisie, is a public sphere of people who are dominated and, at the same time, excluded from the hierarchy of power. Although the point of reference is nineteenth-century Western Europe, Habermas’s argument resonates well with a different discussion in contemporary Polish scholarship, namely, that concerning the detachment and professionalization of the democratic public sphere. Local watchdog websites challenge this idea in a number of ways: firstly, they are made at the grassroots level by ordinary individuals—high school kids, college students, and former urban professionals, who are interested in the place they live in, or who want to focus on a particular topic related to their community. Based on the websites’ statistics, the commenters make up between 10% and 20% of the local population. Furthermore, because it is not uncommon for the authorities to voice disinterest in open conversations with the citizens, the local public sphere is shaped in contrast, or even in conflict, with the local government. Sometimes it is simply ignored by official powers. However, the fundamental difference in the relationship between citizens and authorities now and before 1989 is that civic engagement takes place in a democratic order, not in a regime of oppression. What’s more, although the democratically elected local governments are reluctant to openly discuss public matters and the citizens prefer to conceal their identity in public, the internet gives them space to give weight to local issues in the public eye of the local community. The open discussions between citizens, and between citizens and the authorities, indicate a change brought by the country’s transition. Shared environments are not only treated as Habermasian “public spaces,” but they are also ones that are “ours”—they are a matter of citizens’ concern and sense of ownership. In this, they bridge Nowak’s rift between individuals and the state. Even when local authorities are hostile toward the citizens’ online discussions, the state’s legal system, as the court cases show, secures their right to exercise free speech. In addition, creators of these local websites emphasize that the importance of the local community is a key value behind their projects—an indication that for them civic engagement is important in and of itself. On the websites, it is a community of people whose opinions about local life, including decisions made by local authorities, are visible and open to public debate. In shaping their own public spheres on a local level, ordinary people—Dayan’s “visibility entrepreneurs”—use the online medium to craft their own spaces for discussion, and practice civic engagement as a result.

In sum, these websites point at civic engagement as an important issue for citizens in local communities . It is an activity they take part in whenever they feel secure enough to share their opinions without the fear of repercussions, and when they see that their actions may bring meaningful change. An example of this is a referendum concerning the local mayor’s resignation, which was held as a result of discussions on . Even though local officials are not always helpful, and sometimes they are openly hostile, citizens shape a space for civic engagement not in moral opposition to the oppressive official power, as was the case under Communism, but because they feel that the internet forums lend them power to present their own opinions on local issues, that they have the right to act, and because they feel the need to do something for others within their community. The fact the locals find this activity ordinary is perhaps the greatest success of Poland’s civil society.

Virtual Visibility and Real-Life Civic Engagement

The examples of local watchdog websites show that these sites fill the need for broader platforms, which can provide information independent from that offered by official outlets and foster open discussion on issues concerning local communities . Even though Danielewicz and Mazurek note that “the local government is only beginning to learn how to coexist together with independent, grass-roots media,” (2012, p. 50) they argue that the unflattering comments often made by both sides are mixed with genuine care for the common good. At the same time, it is quite likely that these discussions would not have emerged, or would not have gained visibility, if not for the presence of such local websites. They are meeting grounds where the locals can speak out, and the increasing popularity of the portals makes these private comments widely known. In addition, the sense of closeness among users improves the quality of discussions, as it is clear to all that the virtual nicknames represent real people who inhabit the same small physical space of the village or town. Participants are interested in discussing local topics because they have resonance in their everyday lives, and because they can see how the visibility of their debates influences change. The medium triggers thinking and acting on behalf of the community that goes beyond virtual reality. At the same time, these examples of grassroots, internet-enabled civic engagement show the development of civil society among ordinary citizens once they find a tool that makes them feel both secure and heard. One could argue that it was not so much a civic “attitude” that was missing in post-1989 Polish society, as Gliński suggested, but rather an instrument that citizens could claim their own and use it to bring out local civic activity. From this point of view, the internet triggered the need to be heard as a citizen and as an active shaper of local community next to the elected authorities. This shows that while people have civic potential, in the case of post-1989 Poland, it was the spread of the internet in the aughts, that gave them an outlet strong enough to force the local authorities to notice. Using Michnik’s paraphrasing of Molière, citizens are speaking prose of civil society without knowing anything about it. Local internet watchdogs illustrate that civil engagement is a commonplace, familiar activity and not a distant institution, or a set of idealistic values. What’s more, involvement in such activities via the internet is relevant: while it takes place in a virtual space that allows people to say whatever they want without having to take responsibility for what is being said, the participants—both commenters and viewers—know that their online discussions have the power to lead to real-world consequences. These practices are ordinary because they are daily acts of participation in local virtual forums. Yet they are also extraordinary in that they illuminate the value of community. It comes alive thanks to online visibility, which in turn fosters the practice of shaping local democratic life.


  1. 1.

    One of the indicators most frequently used to determine the levels of civil society in Poland is the percentage of citizens who declare themselves members of NGOs (9% in Poland compared to 20% EU average). See, for example, Kinowska (2012), Flash Eurobarometer (2013).

  2. 2.

    Putnam writes that civic organizations developed by people who interact in different local social contexts foster a sense of mutual responsibility between citizens; see Putnam (1993, p. 173 f.). Benjamin Barber makes a somewhat similar argument when writing about “strong democracy,” in which individuals in local communities engage in a “creative consensus.” See Barber (1984).

  3. 3.

    For example, scholars gave lectures at the Flying University (Latający Uniwersytet), which were hosted at frequently changing locations. A number of independent publishing houses, such as NOWA, Krytyka, and Christian intellectual magazines, including Więź, were circulated in limited numbers. Finally, the Committee for Workers’ Defense (Komitet Obrony Robotników) was established by dissidents to help families of workers who had been arrested after protesting against price hikes announced by the Communist government. See, for example, Goldfarb (1982), Beem (1999), Matynia (2009), Friszke (2011). However, Ekiert et al. (2017) emphasize that although civil society was largely inexistent in Poland at the time, the associational sphere, which included cultural, leisure, and sports organizations, was strongly present.

  4. 4.

    This idea was formulated by Václav Havel in The Power of the Powerless in 1978; see Havel (2010).

  5. 5.

    As Adam Michnik writes, Leszek Kołakowski stressed the role of human dignity in Hope and Hopelessness, published in 1971; Michnik emphasized the importance of free associations in his essay New Evolutionism, written in 1976; see Michnik (1985).

  6. 6.

    See also Goldfarb’s recent interpretation of Arendt’s idea of political power in relation to the Solidarity movement: Goldfarb (2006).

  7. 7.

    Interestingly, this approach has recently become the object of heated discussions in major media in Poland after the social thinker and participant in the 1989 Round Table talks Marcin Król confessed in an interview titled We Were Foolish that the post-1989 political, economic, and social reforms paid little attention to people whose situation worsened as a result of the transformation. See Sroczyński and Król (2014), Król (2015).

  8. 8.

    Nowak’s article, System wartości społeczeństwa polskiego, was originally published in 1979; see Nowak (2011, p. 273). An edited version of the text, titled Values and Attitudes of the Polish People, was published in Scientific American in 1981.

  9. 9.

    Szacki described this mix as “civil nationalism”; see Szacki (1997, p. 42).

  10. 10.

    It is perhaps ironic that Maria Ossowska, a distinguished Polish philosopher, formulated principles for the Polish civil society already in 1946, as though anticipating the coming era of homogenization and suppression of freedom that came when Poland was forced to become part of the Soviet Bloc. The guidelines for the “model citizen” included such qualities as individual and social striving for excellence, or “perfectionism,” open-mindedness, tolerance, engaging in activities to benefit others, civil courage, intellectual honesty, responsibility, respectfulness, as well as a sense of humor. See Ossowska (1983, p. 357 f).

  11. 11.

    The survey-based research focused on students from the University of Warsaw and Warsaw University of Technology. Their opinions were analyzed as indicators of general attitudes in Polish society. See Grabowska and Sułek (1992).

  12. 12.

    The article was originally published in 1983.

  13. 13.

    Poles still consider it the highest duty, unlike, for instance, paying taxes or voting in elections. See CBOS (2013).

  14. 14.

    Voter turnout in national elections in Poland is rarely higher than 50%; the EU average is around 70%; see Eurostat (2017).

  15. 15.

    The 1993 parliamentary elections were held after the government led by Hanna Suchocka, a broad coalition of anti-Communist parties, was overthrown by a single vote in a no-confidence vote for the government. Anna Grzymała-Busse, a political scientist who has written about post-Communist parties in Central-Eastern Europe, argues that the post-Communists—who began defining themselves as social democrats—succeeded in regaining power because they managed to brand themselves as the sensible guarantors of stability at a time of major economic and geopolitical upheavals. See Grzymała-Busse (2004).

  16. 16.

    Paradoxically, the post-Communist party was a beneficiary of the reforms, as it managed to keep a significant part of real estate—previously state-owned—that had been used as party offices.

  17. 17.

    The French historian Pierre Rosanvallon characterizes such shifts from democracy to what he calls “counter-democracy” and “unpolitical democracy,” as limited civic-oriented activities boiled down to judging and vetoing the government. Even though the scholar describes older Western-European democracies, the Polish clientelistic attitudes seem to fit his model well. See Rosanvallon (2008, 2011).

  18. 18.

    OECD Better Life Index, which aggregates criteria including income, civic engagement and work-life balance, also indicates improvements in the short timespan between 2011, the year the index was created, and 2016. See

  19. 19.

    Paradoxically, despite Law and Justice’s open hostility toward the European Union , after two years of the party’s rule, Poles still want to maintain strong ties with the EU and make abortion laws less restrictive. See Janicki (2017).

  20. 20.

    I use the broad term “populist parties” to describe right-wing, nationalist, Euroskeptic, and xenophobic parties in Poland.

  21. 21.

    The Institute of National Remembrance, a special state-funded research institution that focuses on the study of crimes committed by the Communist government, was established thanks to a bill passed by the Polish parliament at the end of 1998, nine years after the democratic transition. An archive with documents created by the Communist secret police, and a public body with power to pronounce whether someone was a collaborator of the Communist secret police, the Institute quickly grew famous for its support of right-wing politicians, particularly from the Law and Justice party, providing them with unverified documents slandering their political opponents.

  22. 22.

    The paradox was that some of the members of these populist parties had taken part in the Round Table talks (e.g. Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Law and Justice) or had been members of the Communist Party (e.g. Andrzej Lepper, the leader of Samooobrona).

  23. 23.

    This success of the governing coalition is often explained as the result of people’s fear of the return of Law and Justice.

  24. 24.

    In doing so, Law and Justice members tend to ignore the fact that several prominent members of the Civic Platform died in the plane crash as well.

  25. 25.

    An example of the Civic Platform’s lack of touch with the low standards of living faced by many young people in Poland was an exchange between then president Komorowski and a teenager in Warsaw before the second round of the 2015 presidential elections. The boy asked how his sister is supposed to buy an apartment if she makes only 2,000 zlotys (580 dollars) per month. Komorowski’s answer was that she should find a different job and take out a bank loan, thus proving that he was unaware both of the tough job market for young people and of the impossibility of getting a loan to buy real estate with such low wages. In comparison, in 2015, the median monthly wage in Warsaw was around 3,800 zlotys (1,100 dollars), the highest in Poland (Szeremeta 2016).

  26. 26.

    The name of the organization is an allusion to the 1970s Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR), mentioned in the previous chapter.

  27. 27.

    See the organization’s manifesto:

  28. 28.

    Szawiel noted that, in the European Values Study held in 1998 and 2008, Poles, compared to Western-European countries, were less likely to strongly agree that “[d]emocracy may have problems but it’s better than any other form of government” (Szawiel 2011; European Values Study, EVS – 2008 Poland Field Questionnaire 2010/37).

  29. 29.

    As a result of the Law and Justice government’s undermining of the independence of the judiciary, in December 2017, the European Council decided to trigger Article 7.1 of the EU Treaty—for the first time in the history of the European Union —which may result in Poland being stripped of its voting rights. See the official statement:

  30. 30.
  31. 31.

    From 2001 to 2004, Jerzy Hausner held several ministerial posts in the center-left government led by the post-Communist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD); he was also the author of major economic reforms in post-1989 Poland.

  32. 32.

    The first grassroots pro-voting campaign Wybieram .pl was launched already in 2005, but its visibility was largely limited to a small number of cafés in the country’s capital.

  33. 33.
  34. 34.

    At present, almost 76% Poles currently have access to the internet; see Czapiński and Panek (2015).

  35. 35.

    I conducted the interviews in 2011 and 2012; they were between one and two hours long.

  36. 36.

    According to a 2008 study on Rock the Vote television campaigns, the organization indeed proved successful in swaying young people to vote. See Green and Vavreck (2008).

  37. 37.

    However, a 2014 survey shows otherwise: only 36% of adult Americans can name the three branches of the government, while over 40% neither know which party controls the House of Representatives nor the Senate. See The Annenberg Public Policy Center (2014).

  38. 38.

    “Głos” in the Polish language means both “vote” and “voice,” hence the name of the organization could also be translated as “You have a voice, you have a choice.”

  39. 39.

    To commemorate the deceased president and 95 other persons who died in the plane crash, a ten-feet-tall wooden cross was planted in front of the Presidential Palace in Warsaw on April 10, 2010. It quickly became a place of protest for the supporters of Law and Justice, who accused the Civic Platform–led government of murder and treason. The so-called defenders of the cross refused to change the location of the cross and guarded it to prevent its removal. For them it was a symbol of the deceased president as a national martyr, betrayed by the treacherous Civic Platform. The Church refused to take a definite stance on the politicized Christian symbol, and it was with much difficulty that the cross was moved to the Presidential Palace’s chapel five months later. However, after the 2015 elections the site became a place of so-called Miesięcznice (Monthlies), meetings on the tenth day of each month to commemorate the dead president. During these gatherings, the space and part of the street, located in a major historical and tourist area in Warsaw, were fenced off and guarded by the police, giving the site an unwelcoming look. The Monthlies ended after the official monument was unveiled on Piłsudski Square nearby, on April 10, 2018, eight years after the plane crash. 

  40. 40.

    Nasza Klasa, now, was a hugely successful local interpretation of the American website, At the peak of its popularity in 2010, it had over 14 million members. After it introduced intrusive advertising and changes in privacy regulations that year, many of its users turned to Facebook, its main competitor.

  41. 41.

    Again, the name could also be translated into “Your Voice is Meaningful.”

  42. 42.

    Project Vote Smart was founded by Richard Kimball, an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for a seat in the Senate in 1989. The idea turned into a nationwide project during the presidential and gubernatorial campaigns in 1992. The non-profit, non-partisan organization researches and distributes information about the candidates and elected officials, including their biographies, campaign finances, performance, issue positions, and voting records. Project Vote Smart’s “Vote Easy,” launched in 2010, is a website that provides information on local candidates based on voters’ zip codes.

  43. 43.

    Papacharissi, in her studies on media and communication, notes that this is a more widespread phenomenon: “declining voter turnouts and similar acts of political disinterest in conventional political habits are interpreted as cynicism or apathy, while other acts of political interest and engagement, such as blogging or ‘digging’ news stories, do no register on the institutionalized radar of formalized political behaviors.” See Papacharissi (2010, p. 18).

  44. 44.

    The researchers studied local websites in villages and towns with no more than 20,000 residents. See Danielewicz and Mazurek (2012).

  45. 45.

    For example, an article about the possible resignation of the town mayor in Kalwaria Zebrzydowska in 2011 was commented upon almost 400 times; see

  46. 46.

    At the same time, these local websites are different from “narcissistic” opinion blogs that offer personal comments in place of balanced information. Unlike blogs, local portals are platforms where information, not just opinion, can be shared and discussed. See, for example, Sunstein (2007), Hindman (2009), Tewksbury and Rittenberg (2009), Papacharissi (2009, 2010, 2015), Boczkowski and Mitchelstein (2013), Highfield (2016).

  47. 47.

    For example, an article about candidates competing for the position of the director of a local cultural center sparked a discussion about nepotism in the election process, which led to the resignation of one of the election committee members. The discussion in the comments section revealed there had been an unofficial meeting during which special arrangements were made about the choice of the candidates. See

  48. 48.

    For example, discussion on missing stores and a new road crossing in Wronki was held on their (now moved) local website, See archived version:

  49. 49.

    I do not use the term “citizen journalism,” since local internet watchdogs do not necessarily focus on news making per se. Instead, they often publish reports and video streams from meetings of local authorities, and official information from the local governing bodies, while also providing opinion and space for discussion.

  50. 50.

    See, for example, discussion about an illegal hire at a local culture, tourism, and sports center,

  51. 51.

    The discussion was held on

  52. 52. is owned by Agora S.A., the publisher of “Gazeta Wyborcza” daily. is clearly linked to the daily, and many unfavorable, or plainly insulting, comments are targeted at the newspaper. belongs to Ringier Axel Springer Poland, which owns, among others, the biggest Polish tabloid, “Fakt”. See also Troszyński (2012).

  53. 53.
  54. 54.

    This definition, widely used in discussions on watchdogs in Poland, was formulated by the Polish Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights in Poland, founded in 1989. See Batko-Tołuć and Izdebski (2012, p. 2).

  55. 55.

    Interestingly, many of the listed portals, which focus on local communities, provide links to the vote-smart project I Have a Right to Know.

  56. 56.

    See cached information from the website:

  57. 57.

    See Danielewicz and Mazurek, Technospołecznicy: rozkwit mediów lokalnych, 2012. On average, the website had almost 500 visitors each day, which was around 12.5% of the population (information from Google statistics; based on personal communication with the website administrators).

  58. 58.

    However, in contrast to the arguments formulated in the article, the commenters noted that only few parents were in fact interested in the preschool, and that a nearby elementary school also offered day care for younger children.

  59. 59.

    Until the website was closed, the tourist section was visited by roughly 50 people a day, which is ten times less than the closed news section (information from Google statistics; based on personal communication with the website administrators).

  60. 60.

    For example, in 2013, the website actively reported on the court case of the new town mayor, who refused to reveal his wages, despite a legal obligation to do so. He lost his case in court. See

  61. 61.

    The site has since moved to (My Wronki).

  62. 62.

    The website is visited by over 1,000 people daily, at times reaching 2,000; this is roughly 10% to 20% of the local population (information from Google statistics; based on personal communication with the website administrators).

  63. 63.

    The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement was formulated to provide an international framework to protect intellectual property. It quickly became the subject of heavy criticism for infringing basic rights of people while favoring big music, film, and medical companies. After several EU member states signed the treaty, protests were held in major cities in Europe. However, in order for ACTA to come into effect in the European Union , it had to be re-signed by the European Parliament. After several months of negotiations that took place after the protests, the treaty was rejected in July 2012.

  64. 64.

    On average, more than 100 people visit the site each day, which is over 10% of the local population (information based on personal communication with the website administrators).

  65. 65.

    In Poland, villages receive money from communes (gmina) that include a number of villages, and conflicts over funds given to one village and not the other are commonplace.


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© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Helena Chmielewska-Szlajfer
    • 1
  1. 1.Koźmiński UniversityWarsawPoland

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