Poland’s prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki made a desperate appeal Monday for protest leaders to call off mass demonstrations and engage in talks, as his right-wing government tried to defuse a political crisis triggered by a tightening of the country’s restrictive abortion laws.
“I ask you to sit down together for talks. May our disputes not be held in the streets and may they not be the cause of more infections,” Morawiecki said, referring to the worsening COVID-19 outbreak that the government has repeatedly cited as a reason to drop the protests.
His call followed a proposal from Polish President Andrzej Duda for a compromise, in which a new abortion law would allow for termination in cases where scans showed a high probability of the foetus being stillborn or born with a fatal condition.
But organisers and activists are unmoved by the calls, and are vowing to push ahead with further mass protest actions throughout the week, while demanding that the contested court ruling that severely restricts Poland’s already draconian abortion laws be scrapped.
“The protests will continue,” Kinga Jelinska, a Polish abortion activist and founder of the founder of the group Abortion Dream Team, told VICE News.
“People talk about no more compromise. There are a lot of demands from the street to change abortion laws altogether, because we deserve as women abortion on demand like in other European countries.”
Street blockades were taking place across the country Monday, just days after an estimated 430,000 took to the streets in historic mass protests against the conservative ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party. In the capital Warsaw, at least 100,000 people marched Friday, chanting “fuck off” and “fuck PiS,” in the largest protests in the country in decades.
The demonstrations, led by women, were triggered by a 22nd of October court ruling that abortion in the case of severe foetal defects was unconstitutional, removing the most common of the few existing grounds for legal termination in the predominantly Catholic country. Critics have challenged the validity of the ruling, disputing the independence of the court, in which Law and Justice installed loyalists.
“The ruling by the so-called Constitutional Tribunal must be withdrawn,” Klementyna Suchanow, a leader of the Women’s Strike movement behind the protests, said Monday.
Activists and observers say the court ruling has been the catalyst for a wide-ranging protest movement against the conservative, increasingly authoritarian Law and Justice party, which has previously targeted immigrants and LGBTQ rights in its populist approach to governance.
“It felt like a kick in the head when I heard what this tribunal had done and upon what nonsensical grounds — the claim that it’s unconstitutional and the protection of life should start at conception,” said Jelinska.
“They made women mad, really mad. It honestly doesn’t surprise me that people are on the streets in such numbers, because it’s too much.”
In echoes of the protest movement sweeping Belarus, Women’s Strike set up a coordination council Sunday, which has issued a series of demands including recognition of women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, a secular state, free media and improved response to the pandemic.
“What is clear is that abortion rights has been a catalyst for larger demands in line with pro-democratic campaigning — against censorship, against authoritarianism, pro-freedom, pro-LGBT rights,” said Jelinska, adding that she hoped the movement would result in the ousting of the government.
Weronika Grzebalska, an assistant professor in political studies at the Polish Academy of Sciences told VICE News that while the protest movement was women-centered and youth-heavy, it had drawn together a broad coalition of people who were disillusioned with the perceived failures of Law and Justice’s governance.
“Women’s rights have gained a populist moment,” she said. “Pro-choice activists and feminist groups have been campaigning for years on this issue but they’ve never garnered such massive mobilisation.”
She said trade groups had been drawn into the struggle out of their frustration with Law and Justice’s divisive governance, as it mishandled its response to the pandemic and seemed more invested in fighting culture wars over LGBT rights and abortion.
“They’re targeting different vulnerable groups rather than tackling the significant issues at hand. This is what draws all those different groups to the street.”
Rafał Pankowski, an associate professor at Warsaw university Collegium Civitas and an expert on the Polish far-right, said the ruling party had underestimated the reaction the abortion ruling would provoke.
“It seems the right-wing politicians were taken by surprise by the scale of the mass protests both in the big cities and, especially, across the country in small towns,” he said, adding that the protests could be compared to famous French protests of May 1968 for the scale and youthful, radical anti-authoritarian discourse.
He said politicians such as Duda were keen to de-escalate the situation by proposing what they considered compromises. “But what they propose is way too little too late for the protesters to take it seriously,” he said.
Pankowski said that actions by the far-right against the protesters in recent days had also been counterproductive. Since protesters began targeting Catholic churches, whose alliance with the state they blamed for the restrictive abortion ruling, ultranationalist groups have mobilised, forming patrols and attacking protesters, including women, across the country.
He said the far-right intervention had been encouraged and welcomed by sections of the ruling party, church, and government-aligned media. Law and Justice head Jarosław Kaczyński explicitly called on supporters to defend churches last week, in what was widely interpreted as an incitement to violence, and Robert Bąkiewicz, an ultranationalist leader who has been on the frontlines of far-right counter-demonstrations, appeared on the cover of the main pro-government weekly Monday.
But the far-right’s appeal to a traditional Polish Catholic identity was no longer relevant to many Poles, he said, and their violence against protesters turned many people away.
“What they don't understand is that Polish identity has evolved,” he said.
“The physical attacks by the far-right and football hooligans against women in recent days really annoyed and antagonised large swaths of the population, who have seen the far right for what they are — violent thugs.”
Additional reporting by Nina Żabicka.