The picture above says more than anything I could write here. That’s Barbara Nowacka, an opposition member of the Polish sejm, displaying her parliamentary ID to a policeman during a Women’s Strike protest yesterday. And that’s pepper spray in that bottle. A police spokesperson later said that the officer used force because he perceived Nowacka as a threat.
Nowacka is by no means the first victim of the police over the past few weeks, but the combination of her prominence in public life and the damning evidence of these photographs could make this brutal assault a tipping point.
The issue that brought protesters to the streets was abortion rights, and that should remain at the center of our attention. If last month’s constitutional tribunal ruling stands, nearly all abortions in Poland will be illegal. Beyond that vital matter, however, the stakes have become even higher in recent days as the government has ratcheted up the violence in an effort to bring the protests to an end. More and more people are turning out to protest, regardless of their opinions about abortion, and Jarosław Kaczyński is now facing a genuine popular uprising. A survey from last week revealed that 70% of Poles support the demonstrators, and PiS’s support has fallen from 44% last March to 30% now. Based on the most recent polling, if elections were held today the current government would fall to a mere 196 seats, with 231 needed for a majority.
Even that 33% level assumes that the three parties constituting the government coalition would hold together, which is far from certain. Zbigniew Ziobro’s Solidarna Polska party has been intensifying its rhetoric in an attempt to establish itself as the home for those with uncompromising radical-right views. Minister of Justice Ziobro has publicly attacked Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki for being too soft in dealings with the EU, pressure that might be behind the government’s recent veto of the EU budget. The package had included measures that would make funding contingent on adhering to European rule-of-law standards, but the authoritarian regimes in Poland and Hungary have refused to accept this. That has provoked a major European crisis, but no less important are the consequences inside Poland. Given the sustained high levels of support in Poland for EU membership (around 80%), Morawiecki’s hardline stance is one of (many) reasons for PiS’s collapse in the polls. But if the Prime Minister reaches a compromise with Brussels that goes any further than a complete repeal of the rule-of-law provision, Ziobro is certain to increase his attacks from the right. He has even threatened to pull out of the governing coalition, thus prompting new elections. This might appear like political suicide, but the relatively young Ziobro is playing the long game. He is reported to have asked Kaczyński to allow a merger of their two parties, with Ziobro designated as Kaczyński’s successor. When this proposal was rebuffed, he apparently decided that his only option was to let the current government fall so that he could rise from the ashes as the new leader of the far right. As crazy as this sounds, he would indeed be well positioned for such a position, because Kaczyński has long ensured that no one within PiS would gain enough power or popularity to ever challenge his leadership. As a result, he has no obvious successor.
I will go out on a limb and speculate that we are currently watching the end-game in the PiS saga—but it could be a long end-game. Kaczyński’s ambition has always been to gain recognition as a great Polish leader, in a pantheon with Józef Piłsudski and (more appropriately) Roman Dmowski. He did succeed in dethroning the other recent contender for that status, Lech Wałęsa, but he did not manage to put himself atop the pedestal. To do that he needed more than narrow electoral victories: he needed to win majorities akin to Victor Orbán’s in Hungary, and use that power to marginalize his opponents and establish a consensus around his version of Catholic nationalism. This has not happened—not even close. Yes, his party still has lots of support, but far less than before. And Kaczyński himself has once again returned to a status he long held: the most distrusted public figure in Poland. Whereas in November of 2019 he was at a +9 approval rating (the difference between his 46% support and 37% opposition), today he has plummeted to a negative 35 (27% vis-à-vis 62%), lower than any other politician in Poland.
The violence so powerfully exemplified by yesterday’s attack on Nowacka is an outrage for which Kaczyński himself must be held to account. Having remained without any official government function (and thus no legal responsibility) since his party took power in 2015, he finally joined the government last month as Vice-Premier responsible for security affairs. This means that he has authority over the police, which means in turn that he is legally, as well as politically and morally, responsible for what has been happening. Whether he will actually suffer the appropriate consequences for what he had done, it seems clear now that his place in history is established. It isn’t the one he wanted, but it is the one he deserves.
I can’t begin to guess precisely how the coming months will play out, though I am growing increasingly confident that PiS’s chances of holding power one year from now are diminishing. That might sound like an optimistic prediction, but it’s entirely possible that the violence could get a lot worse before we truly reach the end of this nightmare. Whether it does or not depends on what Jarosław Kaczyński decides to do next.