Coronavirus may be new, but the authoritarian instinct is as old as politics itself. One of the standard tricks of the Covid-19-era illiberal populist is to reach for religion when you are being accused of incompetence. Donald Trump posed for photos with the Bible, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, converted the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, and in Poland Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the Law and Justice party (PiS), has resorted to an almost total ban on abortion.
A ruling from Poland’s constitutional tribunal last week outlawed abortion in cases where the foetus is severely damaged or malformed. This in practice now means almost all forms of abortion are banned.
Poland already had some of the strictest abortion legislation in the EU. In the three decades since the end of communism the country has lived under what is called the “abortion compromise”. Public opinion favoured retaining liberal post-communist abortion laws. But politicians, bowing to the power of the Catholic church, tightened the law anyway in the mid-1990s without recourse to a referendum, leaving foetal abnormality as one of the only available routes for women seeking terminations. Since 1997, of approximately 1,000 legal terminations performed annually in Poland, the vast majority cite severe foetal abnormality. After last week’s ruling by the tribunal, this too will be illegal.
The street protests of recent days are on a scale not seen in Poland since 2016. Back then a grassroots women’s movement forced Kaczyński to back down from proposals to criminalise anyone seeking abortion. Clad in black, thousands took to the streets demanding that parliament reject the plans. The protesters were furious, but they also had hope. Kaczyński’s party duly shelved the planned changes.
This time, the same anger is there but accompanied by a sense that this ultra-conservative government (which unlawfully appointed loyalist judges to the constitutional court) is engaged in a form of humiliation of Polish women. Many who had until now remained silent about politics are speaking publicly. The slogan “women’s hell” has gone viral. A renowned sportswoman and two-time Olympic medal winner, Justyna Kowalczyk-Tekieli, said: “Polish women are diminished to the role of incubators. I do not know how one could condemn a woman to give birth to a dead foetus.”
So why is Kaczyński, in the middle of a global pandemic, lining up with a minority of reactionary anti-abortion activists allied to the Catholic church to declare war on women’s rights? Partly, this is another line of attack on the post-cold war liberal democratic order he holds in such contempt. More pragmatically it is a move by a leader on the back foot as he fights one losing battle against Covid-19 and another to keep a fragile governing coalition from falling apart. Using the constitutional court is a trick to dodge a repeat of 2016 and any potential pushback by parliament.
On the far right, meanwhile, Kaczyński has to compete with the Confederation, a party that is gaining ground with a more radical set of policies. Kaczyński’s move to revive the anti-abortion law aims to boost the coalition, marginalise the Confederation and thank the church for its support in recent years. It is also a ‘“populistainment” classic beloved of the PiS: light a fire, arouse strong emotions and make spectators choose sides. Kaczyński’s address to party rank and file via social media on Tuesday night, calling for a defence of the Catholic church “at all costs” was a perfect example of this tactic.
This time, however, the populist playbook isn’t quite working. A new political faultline has been created and Kaczyński can’t control the outcome or put the genie back in the bottle. He has another three years until elections but women who had shown no interest in party politics are outraged and on the march. Heavily armed policemen and vans have had to be deployed around Kaczyński’s villa in Warsaw.
Almost 300 years ago, Montesquieu noted that while a despot is busy enslaving his subjects he may also be enslaving himself. This is the trap the embattled Kaczyński is falling into. As he deprives Polish citizens of their freedom of choice, he is becoming increasingly ensnared by the distorted political system he has himself created. And it could eventually consign him to the scrapheap of Polish history.
His cynical and potentially incendiary exploitation of religion reflects his political powerlessness in the Covid era. Liberals should draw their own practical conclusions and learn from his failing tactics to come up with a convincing strategy for the future.
Karolina Wigura is a historian, political editor of the Polish weekly Kultural Liberalna and a fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Berlin. Jarosław Kuisz is a historian, editor-in-chief of the Polish weekly Kultura Liberalna and a fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Berlin