Can Europe Make It?

Why Poland's 'Black Protest' could be a potential game changer

With its move to change the abortion legislation, the Polish government has opened Pandora's box, the consequences of which it cannot possibly control.

Tom Junes
5 October 2016

Polish women protest against a legislative proposal for a total ban on abortion in Poland. PAimages/Geert Vanden Wijngaert. All rights reserved.It was Czarny Poniedziałek - Black Monday. On Monday 3 October Poland saw a nationwide 'women's strike'. Inspired by an Icelandic protest action from back in 1975, tens of thousands of Polish women heeded a call to strike and protest against the proposal of a new abortion law supported by the current PiS (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość - Law and Justice) government.

The strike is so far the culmination of a recent resistance campaign coined 'Czarny Protest (Black Protest)' against a law which would draconically restrict Poland's already restrictive abortion legislation and factually amount to a total ban.

Coverage of 'Black Monday' captured headlines around the globe and images of the more than 20,000 protesters holding umbrellas in the pouring rain on Warsaw's central Castle Square have gone viral on social media. Yet, this was by far not the largest anti-government protest since PiS took power.

In May, Warsaw saw ten times the number of demonstrators mobilised by KOD (Komitet Obrony Demokracji - Committee for the Defence of Democracy) - the civic movement that arose in opposition to the increasingly illiberal PiS government. 

Despite the comparatively lower number of demonstrators, Monday's protest signalled a qualitative shift in the anti-government protest wave. And for the first time in nearly a year, protest has produced a crack in the walls of the besieged fortress of the PiS government.

With its move to change the abortion legislation PiS has opened Pandora's box. The Black Protest campaign has the potential to upset the balance of forces in the nearly year-long stand-off between the government and those who oppose it. There are several reasons to believe so.

This is not the Constitutional Court

The initial protests against the PiS government started following its attempt to change the constellation of the Constitutional Court, a move that also triggered widespread international criticism. However, neither domestic protest nor international condemnation have compelled PiS to change course. In part, this is because PiS can count on a strong base of support. Poland, in effect, has become a highly divided and polarised country between those who approve of and those who oppose the current government's policies.

Yet, neither of these 'two Polands' can claim a majority of society on its side - there is in fact a 'third Poland', one which has so far remained aloof from the political conflict. The conflict concerning the Constitutional Court also is quite abstract, a far cry from the daily worries of the average Pole, be it young or old.

The result was an immediate call to protest the bill, which was heeded even by women who are rather pro-life

The abortion law, however, has hit a very different nerve. The issue affects people, and of course in particularly young women, directly. It is something they can relate to. Suddenly, the government is not promising financial subsidies as in the case of its '500+' child support programme. It is now bluntly interfering in the private lives and futures of millions of Poles.

Women's rights and the gender issue

Back in 1956, the communist regime in Poland legalised abortion. It was de-legalised in 1993 when the current legislation was adopted. The opposition to abortion propagated by right-wing and conservative milieux is presented at times as a key issue to shed Poland of its communist past.

However, the problem transcends such simplistic and misleading views. Women's rights (and the rights of sexual minorities) are part and parcel of what these milieux and the Church see as an assault of 'gender ideology' on the traditional values of Polish society.

The PiS government ironically headed by a woman, Beata Szydło, has embraced the crusade against the supposed spectre of 'gender ideology'. Since it has come to power PiS, represented both by the president Andrzej Duda and the government and backed by an absolute majority in parliament, has embarked upon a campaign of repealing elements of what it sees as the influence of 'gender ideology' such as the morning-after pill or in vitro fertilisation, and sex education in school. A recent absurdity was the termination of a historical journal for featuring an interview with a prominent scholar in gender studies.

Nevertheless, the PiS government made a gross miscalculation based on its own misconceptions of gender. It clearly underestimated the country's female population despite the acquiescence to the existing abortion legislation. The response to the proposed abortion ban was met with widespread anger. The result was an immediate call to protest the bill, which was heeded even by women who are rather pro-life. The response was massive, and was supported by many men as well.

Poland's changing Catholic identity

At the core of the problem relating to the abortion legislation lies Poland's predominant Catholic creed and the power of the Church. Poland is traditionally seen as a staunchly Catholic country and the Church wields enormous influence in the corridors of power.

Gone are the days of the moral authority of John Paul II, the Polish Pope, but at present there is no political party represented in parliament that would openly oppose the Church though there is no Catholic or even Christian-democratic party as such. More so, there is a strand of Polish Catholicism that has a perennial problem with modernity.

One result of this situation was the current binding abortion law, tediously negotiated and enacted in 1993. Though it is very restrictive, it was in effect a compromise between the then political Left and Right. Following the complete collapse of the Left in the last elections, it was not long before the issue of abortion would be put on the table again - with pressure from the Church to do so.

Technically, it was not PiS but a civic initiative committee dubbed 'Stop Abortion' that proposed a drastic change in legislation though both PiS and the government endorsed it. A rival pro-choice civic proposal to liberalise the legislation was also submitted, but struck down in parliament (a move that included votes from opposition parties). 

The parliamentary vote, however, did not reflect attitudes among the population. While Church leaders still proclaim outright myths like the unlikelihood of a pregnancy caused by rape, political parties seem quite out of touch with a significant part of society. In a recent poll, more than one third of Poles favoured liberalising the abortion legislation while only 11% supported a ban.

The majority preferred to keep the existing legislation. Additionally, Poland has been undergoing a gradual secularisation. This is, according to recent surveys, most visible among the younger generation who declare themselves increasingly less to be practising Catholics

Young people are now protesting

It is precisely the younger generation that has suddenly mobilised. So far one of the particular features in the current political strife in Poland was the striking absence of youth among the anti-government protesters and the visible rise of nationalist sentiments among the younger generation.

For young people who had stayed aloof from the protests, the infringement on their personal freedom represented by the proposed abortion ban was enough to take to the streets. Furthermore, among those young people who are imbued with anti-establishment attitudes there are plenty who do not subscribe to the outdated Catholic creed or not necessarily even religious. They too, after all, have been influenced by the individualist inclinations of consumer society.

There is no political party represented in parliament that would openly oppose the Church

The repertoire and actions in the Black Protest movement are attractive to young people. Protesters are dressing up in black or posting photos as such on social media to express their opposition to the ban. Even high school students are taking part in the protest.

It's easy to do, carries a low risk, and is sustainable beyond the commitment of showing up for demonstrations. PiS might just have succeeded in politicising and triggering youth to engage in the anti-government protest movement. 

Law and Justice's self-inflicted conundrum

Despite the lower turnout compared to the KOD protest marches before the summer, Black Monday produced a vile reaction from the government. The Foreign Minister, Witold Waszczykowski, made offensive and dismissive remarks about the protesters on television.

Yet, he was subsequently reprimanded by Prime Minister Szydło who then went on to publicly state that the government was not working on a bill to restrict the current abortion legislation and that it was not PiS that had submitted the proposed bill.

It might just be that PiS is feeling the backlash. A poll taken since the Black Protest movement emerged showed a drop in support. More so, during its previous stint at governing in 2007, PiS tried but ultimately refrained from restricting abortion. This led to a break in the ranks as the then speaker of parliament, Marek Jurek, resigned in protest. 

Such party disunity caused by disagreements on the abortion issue could threaten PiS' parliamentary majority, which in turn would render its government unstable. PiS might ultimately refrain from passing the new law.

Nevertheless, the government could come under increased pressure now that women across the board and, more generally, young people are strongly opposing it. If so, Black Monday might have been indeed a game changer.

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