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By hook or by crook: Poland’s democratic decline Part 1

by | Oct 4, 2020 | The Agenda, Feature

There is disturbing news coming out of Poland after the right-wing government delayed implementation of a controversial court ruling that would outlaw almost all abortion following mass protests. This article, published in BroadAgenda in 2018, is by Anna Gutowska.

Pick any dystopian film or TV show: there is usually a scene where the main character ponders ‘how have things come to this’. The question usually triggers a series of flashbacks, showing how a normal country turned into an oppressive, totalitarian state. What were the warning signs? What were the ‘flip the coin’ moments, when the march of the new regime could have been checked?

As I’m writing this, Poland is sliding from a liberal democracy into a misogynistic theocracy which bears a disconcerting resemblance to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. It seems scarcely believable that any political party in Europe in 2018 would draft such virulently anti-women legislation as that proposed by Poland’s ruling party Law and Justice (PiS). So, we have to ask, how have things come to this?

 …there was no coup, no war, no revolution

The answer is a bit underwhelming: there was no coup, no war, no revolution. What is happening now in Poland is the outcome of the democratic process. The populist right-wing party PiS won the general election by a landslide in October 2015, securing 51% of seats in the Sejm, the lower house of the Polish Parliament. It was able to form a single party government, which can count on the stable support of the parliamentary majority. They can propose new legislation and vote it into law. It’s as simple as that.

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Poland is sliding from a liberal democracy into a misogynist theocracy bearing a disconcerting resemblance to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

In the last two years PiS has taken full advantage of the situation, passing many pieces of legislation that are deeply problematic, such as the new hunting law which violates EU rules on animal welfare. Some are even unconstitutional: such as changes to the Constitutional Tribunal or a court reform that essentially abolishes the separation of powers – putting the judiciary under political control.

Virtually in any area of policy there is either stagnation or willful destruction of everything that Poland has achieved during its 25 years of democratic rule and independence

Since the last election, Poland has turned from being the EU’s star pupil to a loose cannon when it comes to governance and policy. The government’s decisions regarding its relations with the EU, foreign policy, the environment and even the national memory are increasingly erratic and backward-looking. In virtually any area of policy there is either stagnation or willful destruction of everything that Poland has achieved during its 25 years of democratic rule and independence.

Nowhere is this crisis more visible than in the sphere of women’s rights. If Poland is not yet at Gilead-levels of misogyny, it’s not for the lack of trying on part of PiS. Ever since winning the general election in 2015, the party has been repeatedly trying to pass legislation aimed at limiting reproductive and sexual rights.

As it stands, Poland has one of the strictest abortion laws in the European Union (after Ireland, Malta, and – not surprisingly – The Vatican). Abortion is only legal in cases of rape, when the pregnancy poses a threat to the woman’s life, and when the foetus is irreparably damaged. Since 2015, there have been repeated attempts to make the law even stricter and to ban abortion in all cases except to save the woman’s life.

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Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the Law and Justice party (PiS)

One of the proposed bills advocated prison sentences for women and doctors who performed the procedure, and obligatory police investigation into cases of “suspicious miscarriage”. Another nightmarish idea floated by one Law and Justice MP, was a one-off financial handout of 1,000 Euro to women who decide to give birth to severely disabled babies, meant as an incentive not to terminate pregnancies in case of foetal impairment.

The new legislation was originally drafted by a Catholic fundamentalist group Ordo Iuris with the approval of the Episcopal Conference, the ruling organ of the Catholic Church in Poland. PiS has an outstanding debt of gratitude towards the Church, whose support has secured its electoral victory, which was especially sweeping among voters who are more religious, less educated and live outside big cities. Additionally, many of the party’s MPs are religious hardliners, who support the extreme version of Catholic teaching on abortion.

The fact that Poland hasn’t yet been turned into a fully-fledged women’s hell is mostly due to several grassroots women’s movements

The fact that Poland hasn’t yet been turned into a fully-fledged women’s hell is mostly due to several grassroots women’s movements and to an unprecedented level of social mobilisation made possible by social media. I will explore these in more detail in Part 2 of the blog post.

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