Hundreds of thousands of Poles have taken to the streets since late October, defying bans on mass gatherings and risks from the COVID-19 pandemic to protest the government.
An immediate concern for protesters is the implementation of abortion regulations that would in effect end a woman's choice to terminate a pregnancy in almost all cases.
But the demonstrations also, I argue, mark a concerted effort to protect Polish democracy from a deliberate attack by the ruling United Right coalition, led by the right-wing Law and Justice party known as PiS.
PiS has sought to tighten Poland's already restrictive abortion laws since coming to power in 2015. After repeatedly failing to pass new abortion legislation, the party bypassed the democratically elected parliament and appealed to the unelected Constitutional Court to reinterpret the existing law. That court, packed with Law and Justice loyalists, criminalized abortion even in cases of severe fetal deformities on Oct. 22.
The latest move, according to members of the opposition and nonpartisan human rights observers, was an effort to push forward with a highly contentious agenda under the cover of COVID-19 restrictions. Hillary Margolis, senior women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, said: "The chaos and anxiety surrounding COVID-19 shouldn't be used as a distraction from harmful attempts to push through dangerous legislation."
As a scholar who studies efforts to undermine democracy and has spent several years in Poland, I see echoes of PiS's behavior elsewhere. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, various authoritarian leaders, including Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Cambodia's Hun Sen, have been accused of using the global health disaster as a convenient tool to grab more power. The Poland case demonstrates how even purported democrats may be willing to use the emergency to push their agendas at a time when people's democratic right to protest may be curtailed over concerns over the spread of disease.
Indeed, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki suggested that in protesting, those against the new restrictions were putting their mothers and fathers at risk from the disease.
Road to restrictions
PiS rose to power in the mid-2000s by claiming postcommunist elites had a stranglehold on the state and its various institutions. It was an anti-establishment party that promised to liberate ordinary Poles and embrace traditional Catholic values long associated with Polish identity. PiS's decision to align itself closely with the church plays especially well in its nonurban base.
While PiS had its first taste of governing in a coalition that lasted from just 2005 to 2007, it was in 2015 that PiS won its first parliamentary majority. The party's rise was fueled by its anti-migrant policies and promises to counter the "destructive ideology" of the LGBTQ community.
Since then, PiS also gained popularity by lavishing its constituents with generous welfare benefits, including higher pensions, tax breaks for low-income earners and a policy that pays parents to have more children. Thanks to these policies, PiS maintained its parliamentary majority in the 2019 elections, assisted by the support of the church.
Over its five years in power, PiS has been accused by critics of methodically attacking the basic liberal institutions Poland once so confidently modeled for others in the region. For example, the government has been accused of harassing nongovernmental organizations and limiting media freedoms.
It has also weakened state institutions, particularly the courts. At the start of this year, a group of Polish judges led thousands of people in a march against government efforts to undermine judicial independence. The judges were unable to stop PiS from stacking the Constitutional Tribunal with judges loyal to the party – and, it turns out, ready to implement the government's abortion policies.
The abortion agenda
Poland's democracy has remained vibrant enough to prevent PiS from successfully pushing through unpopular policies, including the legislation of a more restrictive abortion law. Although PiS holds a majority in the powerful lower house of parliament, for example, the opposition narrowly controls the weaker upper house.
Up until last month, Poland allowed abortions only as a result of fetal abnormalities, as well as rape, incest or a direct threat to the mother's health. PiS attempts to tighten the laws in 2016 and 2017 failed amid public protests. Fewer than half of Poles support the draconian abortion rules pushed by PiS. This reflects the reality that while most Poles identify as Catholics, only a fraction are deeply religious.
This spring, in the run-up to presidential elections, legislators on the right acknowledged as much. Rather than fight for restrictions, they quietly sent a pending abortion bill back to committee. After President Andrzej Duda — supported by PiS — was reelected in July, lawmakers adopted a new strategy. They would skirt the democratically elected legislature and instead ask the Constitutional Tribunal they had stacked to reconsider the country's existing 1993 abortion law.
Concerns over how PiS has changed the Polish judiciary — through measures including taking over the council that appoints judges and banning judges from criticizing the government — have grown in recent years. Earlier this year, Małgorzata Gersdorf, first president of the Supreme Court, went as far as to say that Poland is no longer "a democracy based on the rule of law."
The Oct. 22 court decision to ban almost all abortions, even in cases of severe fetal deformities, ignited the opposition.
Democracy on the line
The timing of the decision — coming just as citizens were being advised to socially distance because of the pandemic — was, observers say, no mistake. The hundreds of thousands of Poles who took to the streets did so at great risk. With bans on public gatherings, protesters risk not only their health, but also fines of 5,000 to 30,000 złoty (nearly US$8,000). Hundreds were punished in the first days for disobeying the ban on gatherings and many more have been punished since.
The move to bypass democratic institutions amid a pandemic is eerily familiar to authoritarian watchers. Numerous authoritarian regimes have used COVID-19 to silence critics. What's different is that Poland is still a democracy, albeit a flawed one. It is not authoritarian China, not even semi-authoritarian Hungary, where the country's illiberal prime minister has severely undermined democracy during his decade in power.
And Poland is not the only democracy where leaders have been accused of trying to push through agendas while people may be distracted with fighting the pandemic.
In India, the ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party has fueled conspiracy theories that the Muslim minority is intentionally spreading COVID-19. The United States has been accused of using the outbreak as an excuse to unlawfully expel unaccompanied migrant children. Israel has begun using data designed to track potential terrorists to track everyday citizens. And Australian police arrested Black Lives Matter participants protesting the deaths of aboriginal people in custody on the pretext that they breached coronavirus protection measures.
The risk is that as the coronavirus crisis drags on through the winter, leaders in democracies will continue to use the pandemic to take nondemocratic shortcuts to achieve their goals. They may be tempted to respond to public anger as the Polish prime minister did: "I am asking for these protests to be canceled because of the epidemic."
The silver lining
Still, the recent Polish demonstrations — the largest since the trade union-led umbrella movement Solidarity's showdown with Communists in the 1980s — demonstrate democracy's potential resilience.
Indeed, democracy appears to be winning. After a week of protests President Duda suggested he might reintroduce less severe abortion legislation. A few days later, the government promised it would delay implementation of the ban. The cover of COVID-19 may not be enough for PiS to overcome democratic checks and balances in Poland, especially in the face of sustained protest and plummeting support.
Brian Grodsky, Professor of Political Science, University of Maryland, Baltimore County
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.