Poland's Generation Gap Hits the Polls

Advance your calendar and clocks to Oct. 21. It is now Sunday 10 a.m., just after Holy Mass at the parish church in a small town in Poland.

"Where are my documents? Where's my ID card?" yells Grandma. "Got no clue," her grandson coyly grins as he pushes Grandma's wallet, ID and all deeper into his back pocket.

This little family dispute is by virtue of the mobile phone network and SMS messaging. Makes no sense? Read on. This imaginary scene may well become reality in many Polish homes come that Sunday when Poles take to the polling stations.

As the election campaign heats up and the ruling conservative Law and Justice Party runs head-to-head with the opposition liberal Civic Platform, young voters are using all their imagination to prevent older folks from casting ballots in favor of the conservatives. From the new generation's point of view, these mostly ardent Catholic senior citizens have little interest in the workings of the modern world and would rather dwell in Poland's rich and painful history than meet today's challenges.

In the past few days you'd be lucky (or unlucky, depending on your political views) not to get your mobile phone's memory crammed with SMS messages reading "Elections are coming up. The country needs to be saved. Hide your grandma's ID. This is how we can save the nation. Pass it on."

Law and Justice came to power two years ago. Since then, the government fell amid scandals and charges of incompetence by the opposition. The party, which is still in power until the new elections, is run by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who is also prime minister. His mirror-image twin brother, Lech, happens to be president.

'No Right to Determine My Future'

Many younger people feel ridiculed because their country is run by almost identical twins who starred in a 1960's children's movie; they also resent the fact that the current government is extremely right-wing, ultra-Catholic and appeals almost exclusively to the grannies and grandpas who shy away from almost anything beyond their town's boundaries.

Trouble is, as the younger voters see it, these backward, mostly small town dwellers are still eligible to vote. And diligent voters they are, so they may sway the Oct. 21 election result to Law and Justice.

"There's no way I'll let my grandma vote! She's got no right to determine my future, and now that we're in the European Union I've got too much at stake," economics student Karol Gawrychowski, 22, told ABC News.

To cast your ballot you need to present proof of your identity. No ID, no ballot. A Polish ID document is a credit-card-size piece of plastic, much like a driver's license. Easy enough to be slipped into your political opponent's back pocket.

The Polish Dziennik daily paper traced the instigators of this SMS campaign. They are three young computer engineers (homepage: www.wykop.pl), who call themselves "The Three Musketeers" but prefer not to comment on their electoral crusade of trying to keep the elderly from voting for Law and Justice.

The SMS chain has spread like wild fire. "Today's technology reined in for political ends something beyond the grasp of Law and Justice," laughs Leon Zuber of the Plus GSM cell phone network. "We don't make much of a profit out of SMS messaging, but this is a tidal wave. And it's good to see people can use their cells with imagination."

Text Messages

But it's no laughing matter for Law and Justice functionaries such as Ludwik Dorn, speaker of the Polish parliament, who told Polish Radio that the campaign was "rude and inappropriate. … This expansion of youthful stupidity worries me, especially when it becomes a topic of public debate."

Even government ministers got caught up in the action. Minister of transport Jerzy Polaczek, ironically also from the ruling Law and Justice, told Dziennik that he got the SMS and passed it on to several friends "as a joke." But, he hastened to add, "I respect grandmas. They're a very disciplined electoral group and they always vote."

They also have strong opinions about politics, and not all of them fall into the Law and Justice camp.

"I'm 80 years old, have eight grandchildren, and believe me, not all grannies are stupid. I, and all my granny friends, know we have to vote these guys out of office. Not all of us old folks are as extreme as to vote for Law and Justice," said one caller to radio talk show TOK FM.

This is the most closely contested election campaign Poland has seen since it regained full independence in 1989. Backstabbing, sex scandals and allegations of corruption have been the order of the campaign day, so it is little wonder that many Poles are now voicing disgust with their politicians.

"Vote wearing gloves" is a new SMS that has been hitting cell phones for the last couple of days. That way, voters won't have to touch the underlying filth that many associate with Poland's democratic politics.

Moving Forward

Now turn the calendar back to the 1980s when the country was under communist martial law. An unpopular regime muzzled the nation. The only free outlets in the grim country Poland was back then were underground radio stations, the printing of creative leaflets and a secretly published press. No mean feat given yesteryear's technology and omnipresent communist surveillance. And in 1989, they played a major role in overthrowing the oppressive system.

True, today's Poland has little in common with the Poland some older people remember fondly. The "best when I was young" rule has successfully been contested by the new generation.

The country now enjoys a vibrant democracy, has cast off its communist drabness and enjoys unprecedented prosperity and growth -- even Poland's older citizens don't put that to doubt. But many fear that the Law and Justice Party, with older people's support, is threatening this democracy and the newfound civic liberties.

And as "The Three Musketeers," who started the text message campaign, believe, imaginative use of the technology at hand can make a difference.