The passion behind the demonstrations signifies a battle for basic democratic standards in a world of creeping authoritarian temptations.
On October 22nd, the Constitutional Court in Poland made an unprecedented decision, declaring abortion due to foetal defects unconstitutional. Because around 90 per cent of all legal abortions in the country are performed on this criterion, upon entering into force this ruling will in practice drastically limit access to safe termination of pregnancy. It stands in opposition to medical science and to the will of the majority of the population, which—according to the polls—supports the existing abortion regime, already one of the strictest in Europe.
This battle started as early as 2016, with ‘pro-life’ associations lobbying the parliament for an amendment to the law. They failed then but the change has now effectively been introduced by the Constitutional Court. The new status quo is not only controversial on its merits but also because the court’s judicial neutrality, vis-à-visthe governing Law and Justice Party (PiS), has long been questioned.
As a result, massive protests broke out, bringing thousands on to the streets, in Poland and among the diaspora around the world. Left and liberal female MPs occupied the podium in parliament. The protesters disrupted services of the Catholic Church, in protest at its political influence. Far-right paramilitary groups trying to set up a ‘national guard’ to protect churches were outnumbered by protesters and needed police protection themselves.
The unrest continues, with more rallies planned home and abroad, including strikes, demonstrations and high activity on ‘social media’. Step by step, the demands are turning from securing access to abortion to the resignation of the government.
The public outcry in reaction to the ruling indicates there is more to this story than a fight for reproductive rights. In fact, this huge outbreak of anger has been accumulating for a while.
The PiS has been in power for five years now. From the outset, these have been turbulent times, marked by diverse protests—by doctors, teachers, farmers, miners and parents of disabled children. The pandemic has only aggravated the public mood, adding to the frustration of the most affected groups, such as micro- and small entrepreneurs, as well as coronavirus-deniers, a movement also germinating in Poland.
Nevertheless, it’s the ideological war which seems to have agitated the society and petrified the political polarisation. The presidential election during the summer was won by Andrzej Duda, candidate of the United Right, by the skin of his teeth. The PiS retains a majority in the Sejm, the lower chamber, thanks only to its two junior coalition partners, while the Senat was lost to the opposition after the parliamentary elections in October 2019. Local governments and cities remain independent and very often in opposition to the central government.
The leader of the PiS, Jarosław Kaczynski, thus desperately need to cement the populist party’s domination. Meanwhile, one of the junior coalition partners—the leader of which holds the Ministry of Justice and the Office of the Public Prosecutor in his hand—has been testing how far it can go in building an electoral base with a radical-right agenda.
It was in this context that over the summer the LGBT community in Poland became the target of a defamation campaign, which sadly mobilised many and mainstreamed homophobic narratives. It seems the PiS wanted to deliver a pointed response, to prove its ideological ‘purity’—and completely overdid it, putting its own government at existential risk. In so doing, it again tested the boundaries of what remains a young Polish democracy.
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The government led by the PiS had already made public media an instrument of political campaigning and bent the judiciary to its political will, and now it compromises basic civil rights. The abortion ban was only the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The latest protests have engaged men and women, of all ages, in big cities and smaller towns. They have to be seen in a broader context of defending democratic standards against an authoritarian mindset that wishes to strip individuals of their civil liberties, one by one, in pursue of absolute power.
Nor is Poland the only example of citizen resistance. Hungarians and Bulgarians have also taken to the streets, in defence of academic freedom and against widespread corruption respectively. The most dramatic scenes are of course to be seen in Belarus (outside the European Union), where massive protests against the 26-year rule of Alexander Lukashenka have persisted since a highly contested presidential election in August.
There is a lot of upheaval in Europe these days, seeking to save democratic institutions while proving the desire for democracy in citizens’ hearts and minds. Yet, these struggles do not seem to resonate much beyond national bubbles and public opinion in Europe sees them rather as country-specific—hence not as issues which might be tackled within the EU framework.
The EU’s ineffectual clash with Poland and Hungary over ‘article 7’—the treaty clause allowing rights enjoyed by a member state to be suspended, by unanimity, for ‘serious and persistent breach’ of European values—has proved there are not yet the tools and procedures in place to safeguard democratic standards in Europe. Nevertheless, we have to start looking at local democratic deficits as our common cause, beyond the east-west divide and without distancing the European core from its peripheries.
Democracy is a process and it comes in different shapes and forms. But without a common safeguarding mechanism and agreement on its basic values, European integration not only will not succeed—it will be permanently threatened by local outbursts of illiberal, authoritarian desires.
Maria Skóra works at the Hertie School in Berlin. Previously she was head of the international dialogue programme at Das Progressive Zentrum. She holds a masters in sociology and a PhD in economics.