The 1998-1999 Polish peasant demonstrations

Special report: “Conflicts at work”
Politization, media coverage and personalization of a protest movement
By Cédric Pellen

The wave of peasant demonstrations in 1998 and 1999 was one of the most important collective protests in Poland since the regime change. It was mainly interpreted as a symptom of the troubles of the Polish countryside, as a “protest fever” due to the inability of the peasantry to adapt to the market economy. Breaking with these interpretations in terms of pathology, this article aims to “normalize” the analysis of the demonstrations by taking into account the strategies of politicization and shaping of the mobilization brought about by the organizations engaged in the movement. Far from being spontaneous, the protest movement appears to have been the relatively improbable result of the competitive action of politicization of the economic crisis of the agricultural sector produced by the main organizations claiming to represent the peasantry in the post-Communist political arena. The study of the media coverage of events allows us to perceive the decisive impact of the media on the dynamics of mobilization and on its apparent radicalization. By concentrating their attention on the most spectacular actions, the media tended to provide particularly wide coverage of the strategies of scandalization and of subversion of the rules of demonstration drawn up by the trade-union Samoobrona. Thus, even though it was marginal at the beginning of the mobilization, this organization managed to impose itself, via its leader Andrzej Lepper, as the main beneficiary of the protest movement.


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