Poland On the Doorstep: of Dictatorship or Revolution?

Olivier Sorgho
Nov 1, 2020 · 7 min read

a battle looms over abortion, women’s rights, and democracy

A spark has been lit in Poland. Or better — hundreds of thousands of sparks, most of them female and furious. Following a ruling of the legally dubious Constitutional Tribunal which set the legal precedent for effectively banning abortion in the country, tsunami-like waves of protesters keep flooding and spreading in the country’s streets, a massive show of resistance against a government under massive pressure. Friday’s demonstrations in Warsaw ended — quite literally — on the doorstep of the man behind every major political decision in the country, a fitting analogy to the country’s mid-term future, itself hinging on a doorstep of sorts, but which one? Authoritarian nationalism seasoned with religious fanaticism, or bottom-up, youthful, feminist and democratic revolution?

The power and reach of the Catholic Church

The Catholic Church has long enjoyed a position of massive privilege in Poland, unlike in most nations in Europe. Its moral authority , especially among people of the older generation, was firmly established during the country’s trauma-filled recent history, when the Church often assumed a role of the nation’s guardian and refuge. In times of Nazism, World War, and Soviet Communism, when minorities, ethnic and religious, fled the country, a nation under terror grew more homogeneous, and more Catholic; The myth of a Catholic Poland defended by the Catholic Church was written. The accession of Polish Pope John Paul II to the Vatican throne, and his subsequent influence on Poland’s democratisation in the 1980s played a part in extending The Church’s standing and power. This dynamic continued after the fall of Communism, when the Church’s blessing towards various far-reaching reforms was seen as providing the new regime with legitimacy. The Clergy thus continued to reap the benefits of its perks: direct access to politicians, exemptions from taxation, significant legislative influence in key spheres of public life. Religion (Catholic, of course) remained in schools, while influence over health policy granted the Church grip over an issue which it has long perceived as a matter of moral principle, of life and death: abortion.

The Abortion Compromise

Negotiations at the dawn of a new century — amid a post-Communist, fresh democratic regime — attempted to bridge differences between a staunchly pro-life Church, and a slightly more liberal Parliament, resulting in the 1993 “abortion compromise”. The new law banned abortions, except in three special circumstances: when pregnancy endangered the life or health of the mother, in cases of rape, and finally in circumstances of high probability of serious and irreversible handicap to the foetus.

Critics today say the law was never a compromise in the first place, but instead a document reflecting the Church’s power, a piece of legislation lobbied by bishops, enforcing one of the strictest abortion policies in Europe already at the time. Nonetheless, the “compromise” remained in place for almost three decades, a delicate issue untouched by various governments from left to right.

But the new ruling of October 22nd, 2020 has torn this already questionable compromise to shreds, and out the window, deeming abortions in cases of damage to the foetus as unconstitutional, hence illegal and calling for criminal charges. The prior status quo already forced many women seeking an abortion to travel abroad, and abortions are now confined to go further underground towards the black market. Various women’s rights organisations have already begun offering abortions “helplines” to frightened women struggling to understand, and accept, the new, upcoming order.

While the consequences of the new constitutional order are hard to predict, it has nonetheless set in motion a chain ofpossibly seismic events for the country’s future, of which the protests — and the wrath of women defending their rights — have so far taken centre stage. Although protests are by no means a novelty in recent Polish politics, current demonstrations are marked by several distinctive features: their massive scale, the enthusiasm of young people, and a poignant, uncensored language — the language of revolt, perhaps even of cultural and/or political revolution. It doesn’t at all feel like just another protest, but a wider anti-clerical and anti-government movement unwilling to compromise. Throw the pandemic into the mix and you’re dealing with a complex, unpredictable situation.

A New Language, a New Generation

The younger generation is growing disillusioned with The Church. They don’t go to mass, and frankly — they don’t care. Until recently it could be even said that the young’s approach towards politics in general was marked by indifference. But successive paedophilia scandals in the Church, coupled with government corruption and nepotism appearing on young people’s Netflix screens and social media feeds, have now turned this indifference into fury, even among many voters of the ruling party. Demonstrations can now be seen in small towns and villages, bastions of PiS support, but it’s the cities where protests are most pronounced, making a huge impression due to their sheer scale.

Young people can be seen carrying signs with uncensored slurs directed at the government. Chants of “Fuck PiS”, and “Fuck Off” sound harsher and angrier in Polish than they do in English. English is a language carrying a certain culture of civility, politeness and respect. Slurs in Polish are more aggressive, direct, and more pronounced. Feminist memes are constantly being circulated on the internet, mocking politicians and leaders but also warning them — not at all politely — to not interfere with their bodies — “wypierdalać!”. The protest has indeed morphed into something beyond abortion, a cry of defiance heard all over the country against an undemocratic, corrupt, and incompetent government. Whereas the Arab Spring signalled the advent of social media in organising popular revolt, protests in Poland are showcasing the power of memes, humour and youthful uncensorship as methods of political organisation. The top current demand is the government’s resignation.

The Right — which sees no problem in dehuminising immigrants, the LGBT community, and political opponents— criticizes the protests for being vulgar, abusive and poisoning the public debate. But perhaps the language of civil debate has always been overrated. Another question begs being raised: When responding to constant injustice, to insult with no end in sight, what incentive does one have to remain civil? Consider this: you sign a contract with a security firm, the ink is still fresh, meanwhile your own security guards end up beating you up quite badly, and so you respond by hurling abuse at your tormentors. Yet somehow, in a court case, the “fucks” “damns” and “kurwas” become the crux of the issue. A spontaneous, angry response to violence and injustice becomes injustice itself. The story is similar to the George Floyd protests in the US, when a right-wing narrative attempted to divert the issue from institutional racism and police brutality to the vandalism of segregationist statues; a propaganda designed to paint all protesters as violent criminals, plunderers and rioters. Here’s the point: forcing women to give birth to children who are medically proclaimed to have a 0% chance of survival, while simultaneously having the audacity to call this a “pro-life” approach based on religious morals, is not only uncivil, but repulsive and plain wrong.

Women and other protesters say the language of civil debate and compromise has ended. Compromise and diplomacy have seemingly run out of patience and steam. It’s hard to disagree: How can there be compromise with a government which has spent five years in power attacking and politicizing democratic institutions, the judiciary, turning the public broadcaster into a shameless propaganda machine, spewing a language of division and hatred at every turn (LGBT aren’t people, but an ideology, refugees bring parasites to the country etc.), and turning the screw of authoritarianism and religious fanaticism? How can protestors demand dialogue when the party’s leader encourages and incites far right violence in the name of “defending churhes”? If this sounds like Trump, it’s because it is like Trump.

The Pandemic and the Future

Predicting how events will unfold is no easy feat, given the lack of space for compromise on both sides and a pandemic adding further complexity to the situation. A government which keeps winning election after election won’t be intent to simply give in. Six consecutive electoral victories have provided it with legitimacy and verbal ammunition to carry out its transformation of the country, what it perceives in populist terms as the “will of the people”. The mishandling of the pandemic hasn’t stopped PiS loyalist, President Andrzej Duda from winning presidential elections in May and the government’s strategy thus far is to divert blame for its failures on the pandemic onto the protestors. Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has already called protestors “criminals” who endanger the life of others, and several women have heard charges from the politicized prosecution. But the reality is that Kaczynski’s bold actions have left women without a choice, forced them onto the streets, while even the pandemic isn’t reason enough to stop them.

The worst scenario envisions the government continuing to blame protestors for growing covid cases, diverting attention away from its own failures and controversies. The combination of protests and covid provides excuse for additional crackdowns, perhaps a state of emergency (rumours are circulating that this will happen) eroding more civil liberties such as the freedom to protest, freedom of movement, and freedom of the press. Intimidated by the state apparatus, the protests eventually die down, the government wins, passing through legislation which further tightens abortion law. Meanwhile the process of eroding democracy, women’s and minority rights in Poland continues in full steam. But such a scenario would only lead to more anger and indignance, increasing the likelihood of what I see as the best scenario below:

This includes continuing protests, with growing and fearless enthusiasm, unbearable pressure on a government which is finally forced to abide and concede. Concessions transcend the abortion case, leading to the government’s resignation and a call for early elections. A new government, perhaps a grand coalition made up of opposition parties is formed. Reforms ensue — democratic institutions, the rule of law, relations with Brussels are restored. Women’s and minority rights are finally dully respected. A new generation with fresh ideas enters the arena of national politics. This scenario is also unlikely but not impossible. All will depend on the patience and size of the protests, and the calculations of the ruling party.

Is there an in between option? Yes — a return to the status quo, or mild concessions from the government, already suggested by the President. But is that sustainable? The sheer scale of current events would strongly suggest no.

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