Foreign Policy

Poland's populist anti-abortion dream has changed into a nightmare

WARSAW – The night the protests began, a crowd of angry women spontaneously marched from outside the court that practically banned abortion in Poland, past the headquarters of the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) and to their private Warsaw home Chairman. Jaroslaw Kaczynski was not there. When the protests led to Poland's largest uprising in decades, the experienced politician's former firm influence on power was also noticeably missing.

On October 22nd, the Polish Constitutional Court banned abortion for fetal defects, the legal basis for 1,074 of the 1,110 layoffs last year. The court responded to a request made by 119 Conservative lawmakers last December to see whether so-called eugenic abortions – in their words – violated constitutional guarantees of dignity and the right to life. Once the ruling is in place, it will mean that abortions will only be allowed if pregnancies are the result of illegal acts such as rape, incest, or are dangerous to the mother's health.

Kaczynski has long sought to limit abortion in Poland. On an earlier attempt in 2016, he said that children should be born, even if they were sure to die, to be "baptized, buried, to have a name." After an outcry from the population, however, the bill fell short of votes in parliament. Now the PiS chairman has found a non-legislative workaround. He has enlisted the help of judges from the Constitutional Court, whom the party filled with loyalists shortly after it came to power.

The politicized verdict sparked protests that have raged across Poland for almost a fortnight. A group of groups have joined the rallies, each of which has raised its own grievances and expressed concern at the increasingly autocratic leanings of the country's government.

A mining union promoted women's reproductive rights, farmers drove tractors dressed with anti-government slogans, and pastry chefs made cakes for the occasion. Poland's oldest chocolate maker said it would support workers who joined the general strike on Wednesday. The organizers estimate that events are currently held in more than 500 locations, including expat communities around the world. Even in a strictly Catholic country, the verdict was deeply unpopular and, according to the latest polls, worried up to 79 percent of Poles. She triggered demonstrations of a size that had not been seen since the solidarity movement that contributed to the overthrow of her communist government in 1989.

Even before street protests began, it was clear that Poles would speak out against restrictions on abortion laws, which are already among the strictest in Europe. Under communism, the country had very liberal rules, with reports from Scandinavian women traveling to Poland for the trial. In 1993 they were curbed under pressure from the Catholic Church and many Poles have since got used to the “compromise” of three decades. According to a poll published on Friday, only 12 percent of Poles were in favor of limits, with the majority in favor of compliance. Earlier moves have also sparked mass protests by women in black and billowing clothes hangers.

This time the reaction was even thinner. Despite the raging pandemic and the limitation of public gatherings of more than five people, 100,000 angry protesters gathered in the capital on Friday to show the greatest opposition to the government since it took office half a decade ago. There was a sense of spontaneity. "Do you want to go to court, to parliament or to Zoliborz?" shouted a woman from a moving stage. Helicopters buzzed overhead and the dance floor hits of the 80s boomed from a van. Cheering for the third option, the crowd hurried toward the leafy northern suburb where Kaczynski's house was already cordoned off by riot police. "This is war," they sang along the way.

Some believe the verdict was planned for political purposes. The ruling party has been fighting with its two junior coalition partners since September. The subsequent government reshuffle seemed to satisfy no one and to reveal deep cracks within the government camp. Wojciech Szacki, a senior political analyst with Polityka Insight Think Tank, said the abortion ruling was a ploy by the longtime coalition leader to keep control and "reunite members under a new banner."

However, experts believe that PiS miscalculated the recoil. “During the pandemic, people locked themselves in their private rooms and made health a priority. However, it turned out that people were also concerned with protecting the comfort of their social life, ”said Ewa Marciniak, professor of political science at Warsaw University.

The court's decision was fit for purpose in at least one sense: it served as a distraction while the government warded off allegations of incompetence in handling the pandemic. Although Poland emerged relatively unscathed from the first wave, it now faces one of the world's highest death rates per population. The medical services creak. Donald Tusk, former Polish Prime Minister and former President of the European Council, said addressing the issue "in the middle of a raging pandemic" was a "political villain".

Others believe that the Polish rulers took advantage of the opportune moment with elections not scheduled until 2023 to woo the Catholic Church. Much influence in a country where 33 million out of 38 million are registered as its believers, the institution has long pushed the government to ban abortion. "The party signals that it is still its real ally," said Professor Marciniak.

Still, the party unwittingly unleashed the anger of the protesters on the clergy. Women broke taboos when confronted with priests who shouted profanity. Activists threw crowds with chants and destroyed facades with helpline numbers for abortions. In response, nationalist groups formed vigilante patrols to defend the churches. An estimated 56 percent of Poles are already critical of the institution and, given the clergy's warning of the "sinfulness" of participating in the strikes, respondents say they are now losing further support.

Kaczynski sat on his hind foot and broke his quiet days after the rallies began. In a six-minute video, he accused the demonstrators of "ending the history of the Polish nation" and called for the churches to be defended "at all costs". The message was read in different ways, to stir up cultural wars – a successful tactic in the PiS game book – or as a collective call to the simple members of the party. "He wanted to remind them that if the institution of the church is compromised, he will fall in their defense," said Szacki.

According to Kaczynski's letter, prosecutors were ordered to bring charges against rally organizers for endangering public health. Education minister Przemyslaw Czarnek threatened to cut funding for universities that canceled classes so students could take part in protests. The President of Parliament, Ryszard Terlecki, who fanned the flames further, compared the red lightning symbol of the protest to a rune badge of the Nazis. In response, dozens of academics at Warsaw University said the interpretations repeated by the state media controlled by PiS were "deliberate manipulation or a manifestation of ignorance".

However, the confrontational approach has been marred by the conciliatory remarks from other high-ranking figures in his party, including the president. Andrzej Duda suggested that instead of citizens' initiatives, the police were "there to ensure order". His normally reluctant wife and daughter rarely appeared to express their doubts about the new regime. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki also urged people to stay home. "He did not denounce the protesters as criminals, but appealed to their consciences and encouraged them to avoid spreading the virus," said Szacki.

The crisis divided the ruling camp. On Monday, the government suspended enforcement of the judgment, which will not come into force until it is published in an official gazette. She claims that it takes time to "dialogue and work out a new position". On Friday, the president tried to defuse protests by offering a "legislative solution" that affirms the legality of abortion in the event of permanent harm. This would rule out cases like Down syndrome. The prime minister jumped on board, while his deputy and moderate party chairman Jaroslaw Gowin said that "the law cannot force women to be heroic".

Protesters have turned down the watered-down proposal, which they say would still accept stricter rules than those in place for nearly three decades. "It's an offer like – I stole 100 zlotys and I'll give you 50 back," said Katarzyna Lubnauer, an opposition politician. They have now extended their demands beyond reproductive rights issues to a purge of the political judicial system and ultimately to the overthrow of the Polish cabinet.

The government is now in a precarious position. The unpopular ruling, along with the rise in new coronavirus cases and deaths, has hurt popular support. A poll on Sunday found that support for PiS – which won elections last fall with 44 percent of the vote – has fallen from 42 to 29 percent since the beginning of October.

The organizers of the protest have repulsed politicians who hold on to its dynamic. The main centrist opposition, largely absent from the events, also plummeted 4 percentage points in the same poll. Voters instead flocked to Poland 2050, a new formation built by Szymon Holownia, a devout Catholic and popular television presenter. He finished third in this year's presidential competition and has retained the allure of a political outsider.

The PiS chairman is personally in a riskier place than when he was last popular backlash. Back in 2016, his party won the elections with a promise to introduce new welfare measures, including the popular child benefit. This time around, the flagship public housing sector has just failed and there are growing complaints from companies affected by the coronavirus lockdown. Before that, Kaczynski could also rely on the loyalty of the newly elected President of the PiS. Now that Duda has just been selected for another five years – which will also be his last under the Polish President's tenure – he has less incentive to join.

The demonstrations show many young faces and are marked by humorous posters with a handful of angry insults. "The protest has become a struggle for the political demands of a younger generation to be recognized," explains Professor Marciniak. They also show no signs of withdrawal as new formal structures are in place and further street protests are planned for days. What is already clear is that by achieving a long-cherished ideological goal, PiS has weakened its own hold in power.

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