I was fortunate enough to be in Poland in October of 2016, when the radical-right Law and Justice Party (PiS) first attempted to roll back the already restrictive abortion laws in that country. I say “fortunate,” because I had a front-row seat to the largest display of public resistance against PiS authoritarianism. On the day planned for the protest against the legislation, the weather was as bad as it could be: cold, rainy, and gloomy. Nonetheless, hundreds of thousands of men and women came out in every city and town in Poland, creating stunning images of uninterrupted masses of umbrellas as far as the eye could see. The demonstrations were so vigorous that PiS backed down—the one and only time they have done so since taking power in 2015. PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński seemed to realize that he could get away with eviscerating the constitution, politicizing the judiciary, turning the state media into a shameless propaganda outlet, and stoking the fires of xenophobia and homophobia—but he could not win in a direct assault against women’s rights.
Then came the stunning decision by the PiS controlled Constitutional Tribunal last Thursday, declaring that nearly all abortions in Poland would henceforth be illegal. Up until that moment, a so-called “compromise” on abortion dating from 1993 had been maintained by all the major political parties, though the pro-choice movement hardly saw it as a compromise. Abortion had been allowed if the life or health of the mother was at stake, if the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest, or if prenatal testing revealed a “severe and irreversible handicap or an untreatable life-threatening disease.” The decision last week removed that third provision, which was the clause that permitted 97% of last year’s legal abortions in Poland.
The reaction to the court ruling was immediate and overwhelming, dwarfing even the “black Monday” protests of 2016. Each day since Thursday, the resistance has grown stronger. On Sunday there were protests at (and sometimes inside) churches all over the country, reflecting the fact that the Catholic Church has been strongly urging PiS to close the remaining possibilities for abortion in Poland. Ironically, the Conference of Bishops responded like the dog that actually caught the truck: their spokesperson stated that they had not wanted to push the issue at this time, and that they continued to support the old “compromise” legislation. Today there were road blockades that brought traffic to a halt in every Polish city and many smaller towns, and tomorrow the protestors are calling for a general strike, and urging businesses to close so that their employees can participate without repercussions. It will be interesting to see which firms are willing to be identified with PiS, because any business that stays open tomorrow will risk gaining that reputation.
One of the strongest weapons in the PiS arsenal since 2015 has been their ability to simply wait out protests. Time after time, they have done very little as the opposition attempted to rally against each successive outrage, each constitutional violation, each move towards authoritarianism. This tactic revealed a painful truth: PiS has all the power in Poland, and they don’t need to react to popular outrage. They have a firm base of electoral support that never goes much below or above 38-40 percent, and that’s been enough (so far) to maintain power in the face of a disunited opposition. Back in 2015 and 2016 there were protests that drew hundreds of thousands of people, then in the ensuing years there were tens of thousands, then thousands, then hundreds. Increasingly people came to realize that protesting didn’t change anything, and a disillusioned and despairing sense of impotent outrage set in.
But now Kaczyński has blinked. Perhaps he realized that these demonstrations weren’t going to just fizzle out, as previous ones had. Perhaps he felt that he had to do something after the protesters entered the churches during mass this past Sunday. Perhaps he is intimidated by strong women and outraged that they would step outside the patriarchal obedience that he expects. Or perhaps he is losing control of both himself and his Party—after all, this is happening just weeks after infighting among his followers brought the government to the brink of collapse.
Regardless, today he gave a speech that was unhinged even by his standards. Referring to the protests, he said that “this attack is an attack that is aimed at destroying Poland. It is supposed to lead to a triumph of forces which, if they gain power, will fundamentally bring to an end the history of the Polish nation.” Those forces, he warned, demonstrated “certain elements of preparation, perhaps even training.” But true Poles need not fear, Kaczyński concluded, because “today is when we must be able to say ‘no’ to all those who can destroy us, but it depends on us, the state, its apparatus, but it depends above all on us, on our determination, on our courage….Let us defend Poland, let us defend patriotism and show our courage. Only then can we win the war that was declared by our opponents.”
If they wish, the PiS government could utilize emergency powers related to the COVID crisis to break up demonstrations. Photographs of the protests show that mask use is near universal, but obviously it isn’t possible to consistently retain social distance at such moments. The pro-choice activists in Poland are facing a dilemma shared by the Black Lives Matters movement in the US: how does one organize a mass movement in the midst of a pandemic? Making things worse, the coronavirus is spiking in Poland, and has now far surpassed the US on a per-capita basis. Polish hospitals are quickly reaching capacity, supplies are at critically low levels, and all signs were pointing to a worsening crisis even before these protests began. In fact, there has been speculation that PiS chose this moment to launch their anti-choice measures precisely because they assumed that protests would be impossible. Clearly, hundreds of thousands of Polish women feel that their reproductive freedoms are worth the risk of COVID.
If a police crackdown against protesters is coming, PiS will try to dampen the international and domestic outcry by appealing to the public health catastrophe. Maybe a different government could get away with that, but PiS can’t. President Andrzej Duda, who himself tested positive for COVID over the weekend, has already said that he would not accept a vaccination even if one was developed, and Kaczyński has been notoriously resistant to wearing a mask. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki asserted over the summer that Poland would not have another lockdown no matter what happened, though suddenly the government is now suggesting that such a step might be necessary. The credibility of the Polish government on the pandemic is not nearly as bad as the Trump administration’s, but that’s not much of a standard to go by. When this is combined with the authoritarian reputation that PiS has (quite appropriately) gained over the past five years, they have no reservoir of trust to draw upon.
I cannot see a scenario in which PiS remains in power for long if they opt to use violence to break the women’s strike. Of course, they have the means to arrest and intern opposition leaders and use riot police to break up any public demonstrations. Since they control the courts, they could shut down opposition media and even declare martial law. But even the sclerotic Eurocrats could not sit idly by if that happens. If Trump is defeated in next week’s US elections, PiS would lose its last significant international ally. Hungary, Turkey, and Israel won’t be of much help (though Budapest could certainly make it much harder for Brussels to act). Putin is on the sidelines in this story—despite ideological affinities, Kaczyński’s visceral hostility towards Russia has prevented him from following Orbán’s pro-Kremlin foreign policy. Isolated internationally and besieged by the pandemic, Kaczyński will have enormous difficulty surviving a switch from “soft authoritarianism” to a Belarus-style strategy of open violence and oppression.
Going forward, four scenarios are plausible: 1) this crisis brings down the PiS government and leads to snap elections; 2) somehow PiS figures out how to wriggle out of this mess by returning to the abortion “compromise,” and Kaczyński comes up with a way to back away from today’s incendiary speech; 3) the protesters prove unable to sustain the protests beyond a few more days, and we return to the status quo ante; or 4) the government does indeed use force against the protests, despite the inevitable domestic unrest and international isolation that would follow.
Whatever happens over the coming days, this is by far the greatest crisis PiS has faced. The consequences of decisions made now will reverberate for years to come.