Aleksandra Wiśniewska (above), a 29-year-old political novice, who is now the youngest woman MP in Poland’s parliament. Courtesy of Aleksandra Wiśniewska/Instagram.
Lodz (Poland)
How to Win an Unfair Election

An exchange in Lodz reveals how the Polish opposition managed to defeat an authoritarian ruling party.

This story was originally published by Zócalo Public Square.

By Alexander Sikorski

On a blustery day in early October 2023, half a dozen volunteers stood outside a street market in Łódź, Poland’s fourth largest city, handing out flyers, stickers, and cherry cakes. We were campaigning for Aleksandra Wiśniewska, a 29-year-old former humanitarian aid worker and political novice, who was running for parliament from the Civic Coalition (KO) list, the largest Polish opposition party. I was her campaign manager.

Unexpectedly, Zbigniew Rau, the Polish foreign minister and a member of the nationalist-conservative ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS), appeared. He interrupted the event and started a shouting match with several other opposition candidates campaigning at the market. Instead of engaging in the melee, Wiśniewska turned her back and firmly spoke to a camera held up by a volunteer.

“Poland deserves a real foreign service. Our ruling party does not represent us,” she said.

Within minutes, the video—uploaded online with the caption “#bazaardiplomacy”—had garnered hundreds of thousands of views.

Just a week later, Polish voters overwhelmingly backed the opposition in the historic elections, ending eight years of PiS rule. The turnout of more than 74 percent smashed all previous records. Ten percent more people voted than during the first partially free elections in 1989, when Poles ended communism at the ballot box. This election compares in significance: It was a case study of how a highly motivated and well-organized opposition can win, even against a ruling party that cheats. For that reason, it deserves to be better understood around the world.

For the past eight years, PiS has eroded media freedoms and undermined judicial independence, moving the country towards authoritarianism. Despite the opposition’s win, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) noted that “the ruling party and its candidates gained a clear advantage from the misuse of state resources,” meaning that the election was fought on a “tilted playing field”: taxpayers’ money donated by state companies and newly created “foundations” was used to back the ruling party. State-run media, the only broadcast media available in parts of the country, was more than biased. It has been turned into a Goebbelsian propaganda machine that twisted and manipulated video and spewed hatred against the opposition, minority groups, and civil society organizations.

PiS had also passed a series of restrictive laws, including an abortion ban so drastic that women with problem pregnancies died because they were refused abortions that would have saved them. A nationwide women’s strike followed: for many younger women, participation in that march was their first experience of politics. Polling data from election day strongly suggest that young and female voters, many of whom had not voted in the past, propelled the opposition to victory. Four years ago, only 46% of voters under 29 voted; this year, over 68% did.

The success of Wiśniewska—now the youngest woman MP in the parliament—was part of this change. Our team was entirely made up of young people in their 20s. None of us had been involved in Polish politics before. Despite our lack of experience and despite starting from a lower position on the party’s list of candidates, Wiśniewska received more support than four sitting MPs. We showed voters how an innovative, grassroots, and energetic campaign can change the political arena.

Three strategies enabled our success.

The first strategy was our team. Wiśnewska has charisma, international experience, and a compelling story, but the campaign was not only about her. We knew that our potential electorate consisted of many open-minded, young, and curious people who were looking for someone to vote for, but perhaps felt they had been overlooked by politicians or parties. We featured photos, ideas, and profiles of our team members in our online communications.

When we went to early morning markets or stood on street corners handing out flyers, we always went as a team. We spent countless hours on the streets, talking to people, proving that democratic engagement isn’t boring. At our events, we brought together musicians, artists, and other young experts to talk about issues in Polish society. Our idea was to talk about things that younger people care about, and by doing so, show that Wiśniewska was part of a greater movement of younger people who were daring to take the first step into the world of politics. We think that we succeeded because this was true: we were all committed to changing politics and we think we transmitted that commitment to people.

Our second strategy was to stay positive and patriotic.

PiS ran a remarkably nasty campaign. The day we announced Wiśniewska’s candidacy we made national news when PiS media accused our candidate of falsifying her entire life story, as well as insinuating that she was not a “real Pole.” Our social media was inundated with hateful messages. Some particularly aggressive people stopped us on the street, calling us frauds or Germans. But we knew politics would be dirty, and before the campaign started, we had created a social media campaign encouraging young people to be brave and get involved in politics.

We stuck to our strategy, proudly wore Polish flags, didn’t engage in shouting matches, didn’t reply to trolls, and didn’t dwell on the negative campaign of the ruling party. Instead, we focused on our values, urging our voters to vote not based on political promises that particular campaigns made, but based on what kind of people they wanted to represent them in parliament. For us that meant people who promote hope, responsibility, and kindness. We laughed and smiled through every campaign event, emphasizing personal conversations with voters over large rallies. Once again, this succeeded because it was real: We were enjoying ourselves.

Only once, when a prominent PiS activist shared racist memes implying our candidate was in a Russian pornography film, did we retaliate. We went straight to court, and within a week won a defamation case against the activist who had to publicly apologize. We found this was the most impactful way to deal with hate—by standing up for your values and for decency through established checks and balances.

The third strategy is perhaps the most obvious. But bizarrely, it was the one which so many Polish political campaigns lacked.

In order to convince people to vote for you, you have to reach them where they are. And every single young voter is online. We built an around-the-clock social media presence on every platform—Twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok, and YouTube.

We also took advantage of micro-targeted online advertising. Understanding that voters are different also means that you are forced to consider what different groups may need. Campaigns can send different messages—or the same message in different ways—to voters depending on their age, gender, income, neighborhood, or what they like on Facebook. We leveraged publicly available data about historical voting patterns to target particular areas with specific messages. It’s common sense too. Your message and tone to young people attending a music festival is going to differ from your message and tone to older voters and small businesses at an early morning bazaar. On the street, this tone shift is so obvious it is automatic. But it needs to happen online, too, and it allows you to more effectively convince voters that you have the ideas and values that can enact positive change.

Over the next year, voters go to the polls in India, Venezuela, Georgia, and Mexico, all countries run by authoritarian populists. In each of them, young people who want something different will be fighting incumbent parties that tilt the playing field, cheat, or steal elections. In the United States, the incumbent president is not an authoritarian, but in many states, younger, democratic candidates are also fighting in conditions that aren’t as different from Poland as many Americans imagine. They will work inside gerrymandered systems, fight off vicious smear campaigns, and face consistent media bias.

Winning in these conditions is difficult, but as the election in Poland shows, it is not impossible. Success comes more readily to campaigns that look like a team and work like a team, that project a positive message in an overwhelmingly negative atmosphere, and that make full use of the tools available to them.

Alexander Sikorski was the manager of Aleksandra Wiśniewska’s successful 2023 parliamentary campaign. He is the founder of Fundacja Zryw, an organization dedicated to encouraging young democrats to enter politics.