Hundreds of thousands of women have been protesting in what has become the largest demonstrations seen in Poland since the fall of communism in 1989.
Sparked by a decision by the constitutional court to remove one of the last remaining grounds for abortion, it has grown into broader opposition against the government, with supporters using the slogan #ThisIsWar. Why has this decision, and the outrage it has caused, been so significant?
Annabelle Chapman: Poland has some of the strictest restrictions on abortion in Europe where abortion is banned except in exceptional circumstances such as when a woman’s life is in danger, in cases of rape or incest or in cases of severe foetal defects.
This recent ruling by the constitutional court removes the possibility of having an abortion in cases of foetal defects which accounts for almost all of the legal abortions that are performed in Poland every year. This has struck a nerve for a lot of Polish women because it’s a situation every woman could find themselves in.
Kerry Longhurst: These protests, at the heart, are about women’s rights but it’s not just feminists out here protesting. There are mums, dads, brothers, sisters and children from different groups across society.
For many people the protests are a broader opposition to the rights they feel the Polish government has been chipping away at over the last five years due to the 'Kaczyńskization' of the government under the influence of Jarosław Kaczyński, currently leader of the ruling Law and Justice Party. The streets are alive and the protests are not going away anytime soon.
This is not the first time the Polish government has attempted to regulate abortion. In 2016, legislation prohibiting abortion altogether was put to parliament, but was met with opposition as thousands of women went on strike during what was called Black Monday.
With 400,000 people taking to the streets in cities and towns across Poland this year, how has the latest ruling galvanized people that might not have otherwise been expected to protest in the past?
Annabelle Chapman: There’s a sense that this is something new. If you go around different cities and towns, you see the symbol for these protests – a red lightning bolt – posted in the windows of people’s houses, showing solidarity with the demonstrations.
The last time we had similar protests, as you mentioned, was in 2016 when the Polish government attempted to prohibit abortion altogether. This year, the people protesting are still largely young women outraged at the Polish government for attempting to bring in this latest legislation almost through the back door rather than through open democratic debate.
But this ruling has brought together a lot of different people who don’t necessarily share a political platform too. The women leading the protests in Warsaw, for example, want to reverse the decision by the court but I wouldn’t say that’s something that all the protestors are protesting for. Some people believe this is their opportunity to push for a more liberal political agenda which could mean more women’s rights but also, for example, more LGBTQ+ rights too.
Kerry Longhurst: I think the fact that people are out here on the streets demonstrates that, when pushed, people want to stand up for not just their own rights, but those of others too.
In recent years there has been criticism over some of the appointments made to the constitutional court. Two recent appointments, in particular, have been controversial with one having served during Poland’s communist regime. Why did the Polish government decide to use this route to pass this latest legislation?
Annabelle Chapman: When the Law and Justice Party came to power in 2015 one of the first things they did was to try to control the constitutional court because that’s the court that reviews whether legislation is compatible with the constitution or not.
Then, a year later, when the Polish government tried to tighten restrictions on abortion, they did so through parliament, but it didn’t work. So, this time, the ruling Law and Justice Party decided to use the judicial route because of its influence over the constitutional court.
In fact the current ruling by the constitutional court was done after being requested to do so by a group of parliamentarians largely from the ruling Law and Justice Party so, although defenders of the ruling have said that it’s a legal decision made by the court, it’s not an objective court.
Historically Poland is a socially conservative country with the Catholic Church holding considerable influence over Polish society since it transitioned to democracy in 1989. What role has the Catholic Church had, alongside the ruling Law and Justice Party, on shaping social attitudes in Poland in recent years?
Annabelle Chapman: The current restrictions on abortion in Poland date back to 1993 following the fall of communism when a so-called compromise was struck between the political parties and the Catholic Church where abortion was almost banned except in certain cases. These provisions have been around for almost 30 years and there have been attempts to make them stricter over the years.
The ruling Law and Justice Party is traditionally allied with the Catholic Church and presents itself as the defender of the traditional Polish family against the LGBTQ+ community, in particular, which it sees as a threat. They have been using this narrative since they came to power and it was a major theme this year in the Polish presidential election where President Andrzej Duda was re-elected on a campaign that focused on protecting the ideal of the traditional Polish family.
But, if you look at the polls, although most Polish people support the post-1993 status quo, very few people support further tightening of the rules so there’s not a lot of support for this latest ruling at all. The court’s ruling has still not been published yet, and the deadline for doing so was last month, so there’s a sense that someone in the government has understood that this has gone too far.
Kerry Longhurst: Poland always was and always will be a relatively socially conservative country compared to other Western European countries. The Catholic Church is given a lot of weight in Polish society and the incumbent government has used it as a way of strengthening its political platform. Indeed, the the current brand of social conservatism has been pushed onto the mainstream political stage by the ruling Law and Justice Party since 2015.
Previously, most Poles were content to have their own personal views on abortion but the government has politicized these issues so strongly over the past five years that is has stirred up a lot of people around the concept of Polishness and therefore what it means to be patriotic.
It’s a narrative that has been used by the Polish government against the EU too and so they have been effective at creating a toxic environment on all sorts of social issues such as women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights and immigration. But this in turn has prompted a pushback from Polish society as we are seeing with the demonstrations at the moment.
However, one of the problems right now is that there isn’t a coherent opposition political party in Poland and, because of this, the Law and Justice Party has quite a free reign in doing what it wants to do without another political party being strong enough to challenge its narrative. But, in many ways, it’s a perfect storm and I don’t think this toxic environment will last forever.
You have mentioned that some within the Polish government are thinking twice about going ahead with this ruling after all. Since the onset of the protests a couple of months ago, is there a feeling that, internally, there might be differences emerging within the Polish government?
Annabelle Chapman: Definitely. It's a complex time in Poland at the moment because of the coronavirus crisis so the government is facing a lot of public pressure but also pressure within the party too.
Since the ruling was announced, some figures in the ruling Law and Justice Party, including its chairman, Jarosław Kaczyński, have defended the decision of the constitutional court but there’s a sense that the government is still deciding what to do.
Polish President, Andrzej Duda, for example, has been one of the people who have come out and said: ‘We might need to reconsider this.’ He has since proposed a bill which would allow abortion in cases where a child is going to die after birth which is an attempt at striking the middle ground. However, when I’ve spoken to protestors about this presidential initiative, most of them are still sceptical.
Kerry Longhurst: I think Jarosław Kaczyński and the ultra-conservative section of the ruling party just don’t want access to abortion at all so I’m not sure they will ultimately compromise, in which case, we will not see legislative change until another election which could mean more protests on the streets for the foreseeable future.
Counter-protests have erupted too inflamed to an extent by the Polish government.
Annabelle Chapman: Yes, in the beginning, the ruling party called on Poles to defend the churches from the protestors who, at the time, were largely women. In response, groups of men stood outside churches to prevent protestors from going in and, in some cases, these were supporters of the ruling party but, in other cases, they were far-right supporters.
What we’re seeing in Poland at the moment is a difference between two worldviews. On the one hand, there are these women who want to have more rights and then, on the other hand, there are these men who want to defend so-called traditional values which they associate with being Polish.
Kerry Longhurst: The counter-protests have been sporadic but more prone to violence. There is a culture war going on where you have pro-women’s rights, pro-LGBTQ+ rights and pro-EU supporters on one side and then you have the other side cloaked in a nationalist kind of fervour.
Even though, in my view, the government doesn’t officially endorse them, they have created this enabling environment for these nationalist groups to take action but I think this polarization will be the Polish government’s downfall in the end.
The European Union has recently come out in criticism of this latest ruling by Poland's constitutional court. How far have domestic issues fed into Poland’s relations with the rest of the continent and have social issues, in particular, played a significant role in Poland’s relationship with Europe?
Annabelle Chapman: I mentioned how the ruling party took over the constitutional court shortly after it came to power in 2015. This in fact triggered a longstanding conflict with the European Commission in 2016 where it accused the Polish government of undermining the rule of law which is one of the fundamental principles of the European Union (EU).
This dispute has continued to snowball with the European Commission trying to deal with Poland in various ways including by taking the matter to the European Court of Justice but it’s still trying to find the right tools to deal with Poland effectively.
The German presidency has recently decided to try to link the allocation of the EU budget to the respect for the rule of law and Poland and Hungary have threatened to veto this so it’s unclear what will happen but, of course, Poland and Hungary won’t want to see this happen because it might mean they won’t get much funding in future.
Kerry Longhurst: Poland is seen as a difficult partner in Europe. The story goes back a number of years when the EU expressed concern about what was happening in Hungary and then in Poland over the erosion of democracy.
But, although the EU has urged Poland to change its ways, it has been to little effect and, with no one holding the Polish government to account from Europe, the ruling Law and Justice Party has carried on with a strong sense of self-righteousness.
Hungary and Poland recently blocked the seven-year EU multi-annual financial budget and also the COVID-19 Recovery Fund too which is bizarre because Poland would be one of the core recipients of it but it’s all about trying to fight the EU. It’s irresponsible of Poland and dangerous too because it’s potentially blocking the economic recovery that the Polish people need.
Poland doesn’t have many alternatives apart from EU membership because it’s still a relatively poor country on the dangerous eastern flank of the continent. It’s got Hungary as a friend but so what? It’s an incredibly short-sighted strategy which says a lot about the government.
Where does Poland go from here nationally, regionally and internationally in terms of women’s rights but also more broadly as a country? Do you think things could change in Poland or do you think it will be much of the same in the coming weeks, months and years?
Annabelle Chapman: Poland has just completed its parliamentary and presidential elections so, in theory, nothing is expected to change in the short-term because the next electoral cycle isn’t until 2023, though there’s some talk that there could be early elections held next year, but this is still unclear.
Nevertheless it’s such an explosive time in Poland at the moment with the coronavirus crisis, the protests and also tension emerging within the ruling party itself so who knows? I’m not expecting change to happen overnight but I think that, slowly, the country will become more open and therefore more 'European'.
These protests show that, on certain issues, the Polish government cannot go as far as it thought. There's a social awakening happening at the moment among the next generation which could shape Poland’s collective consciousness going forwards.
Kerry Longhurst: I think there are two main things to watch out for. One is how relations with the EU materialize because this will, in large part, determine the future ahead for the country.
The second depends on whether a credible opposition emerges which can bring together all of the different people who are on the streets and form a coherent alternative to the Law and Justice Party that could win an election. However, at the moment, I don’t see that happening and, until it does, I think we can expect the Law and Justice Party to haul itself on.
We are still waiting for the eventual ruling of the constitutional court which could make the new abortion regulations into law. If, and when that happens, I think we can anticipate even larger demonstrations to take place. But, one thing is for sure, the government’s grip on power might not be as strong as it seems.
Gitika Bhardwaj, Editor, Communications and Publishing, Chatham House; Annabelle Chapman, Journalist, The Economist and Monocle (Warsaw) and Dr Kerry Longhurst, Jean Monnet Professor, Collegium Civitas (Warsaw).