I woke up last week to news of massive protests in Poland. The unrest comes after the right-wing government under the Law and Justice Party (PiS) used the constitutional court to institute a ban on abortions in the case of fetal defects. These types of procedures have, up until now, made up 98% of all abortions performed in Poland annually. The ruling then, functions as a de facto ban on abortions as they are now only permitted in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the mother.
This round of unrest brings to mind the umbrella-wielding protesters who took to the streets back in 2016 when the government first announced it would be pursuing these changes. I remember being surprised by the level of resistance back then, even though it was ultimately unsuccessful. I’ve often had little hope for meaningful challenges to the Polish status quo. Nationalism and the Catholic Church have exerted a whole lot of influence on the country. There exists a pervasive narrative of permanent national victimhood stemming from Poland’s experiences during the Second World War that feeds an outsized patriotism among my countrymen. Since the Catholic Church is such a major part of the national identity, that protective umbrella of patriotism naturally extends around it. The people who took to the streets in 2016, then, were a challenge to one of the cornerstones of the Polish nation. I felt a tiny bit of cautious optimism in those days, seeing the protests as suggestive of Polish fatigue towards empty traditionalism.
Watching events unfold over the course of this past week, I now feel like that tiny bit of cautious optimism was justified. It’s not just the sheer size of the protests, with 100,000 showing up in Warsaw this past Friday, that now gives me new hope for positive change. It’s the sudden and fierce breaking of long-held social taboos on display that suggests these protests are going further than 2016. Not only is the opposition to PiS and its far-right policies bigger this time around; it is angrier and willing to go further than before. The breaking of social taboos around disrespecting churches is a particularly notable development. The protesters’ willingness to go after the Catholic Church; to take their activism physically inside the buildings and disrupt mass or yell obscenities at priests suggests that a social breaking point has been reached.
These actions signify that Poles are now willing to fully treat the Catholic Church as a political entity. Up until now, this institution has used its seemingly untouchable position of moral and cultural authority to insinuate itself into the political life of the country while hiding from criticism behind social norms and taboos. In this way, it has been able to avoid serious scrutiny while providing a convenient shield for its PiS allies. But the jig might be up now that the churches are fair game. The message is clear: Poles are both aware of and opposed to the church’s political interference in what is supposed to be a secular state.
This is bad news for PiS, as it heavily depends on its alliance with the Catholic Church in order to drive public support. The party and the clergy have, in effect, been locked in a reactionary feedback loop, high-fiving each other on moving Poland ever to the right, having consulted neither the electorate nor the congregation. Meanwhile, church attendance is falling faster in Poland than any other country, while today’s young, moderate Catholics are more interested in the message of inclusivity espoused by Pope Francis than the ultra-conservative viewpoints of PiS and the Polish clergy. This is support that would need to be won if they want to continue governing. Counting on older, more conservative Catholic voters, like my own grandparents (both are PiS supporters) is not a viable long-term strategy for obvious reasons.
At its core, the abortion ban appears to just be a political ploy; and a questionable one at that. It’s a gift to both the Church and a minority of the party’s ultra-conservative supporters. Doubling down on that loud minority has had the effect of alienating everyone else. The new policy is opposed by three quarters of Poles, while 60% would like to see abortion laws moving in the opposite direction. Furthermore, the huge protests have unleashed a wave of discontent that goes beyond reproductive rights. The entire patriarchal post-Soviet socio-economic order of Poland is on trial here, and the opposition PO (Civic Platform) party is likewise not safe from criticism. The women protesting in defense of their rights are being joined by unexpected allies, such as the farmers and miners.
For Poles, the decision of who to vote for during an election has recently been demoralizing pitfall. The battle has largely between the neo-liberal technocrats of the PO, who are progressive on social issues but troubling on economic ones. They made their own deeply unpopular decision while in power when they increased the retirement age to 67 back in 2012. The other option is PiS; a far-right party that is willing to engage in economic populism to undermine its pro-business liberal opposition. This was exactly the case with the retirement age when PiS ran on restoring it to 65 for men and 60 for women and followed through upon unseating the PO. But now, people in the streets are remembering all of the things they are angry about. They are remembering all of the nice things they want for themselves and their families and, maybe, coming to the conclusion that these things are not going to happen within the binary offered by the two major parties.