For Poland’s ruling party, waging war against women pays off

Edit Zgut is a fellow at the German Marshall Fund and at Visegrad Insight.

WARSAW — The Polish government is at war — and happily so.

Following a Constitutional Court decision last week to impose new restrictions on Polish women’s access to abortion, thousands of people have taken to the streets in protest, condemning the move and telling the government to “fuck off.”

The mass demonstrations are drawing international attention to what are some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, prompting strong criticism of the Court’s politicization.

But far from backing down, Poland’s ruling party is fanning the flames — and setting itself up to bask in the glow of the public backlash.

If the strength of the outrage may have taken them by surprise, as some PiS politicians admitted to Polish media, the party knows that waging war against women will pay off in the realm of domestic politics — something the government has always prioritized over international opinion. 

The ruling party thrives on fear mongering and false enemies. The current protests are a perfect opportunity to exploit identity-based anxieties and convince supporters of the importance of protecting so-called traditional values.

In an address earlier this week, PiS party chief and Poland’s de facto leader Jarosław Kaczyński said the country is in the midst of a “cultural civil war.” Defend the church “at all costs,” he urged supporters, or Poland will be “destroyed.”

By framing the fight as one that centers on the church, the ruling party is portraying the protests as an attack on a pillar of Polish society and, by extension, an attack on “the people.”

In doing so, PiS ignores the fact that protests are largely taking place in front of its offices and the public institutions it controls, not just churches, and that a majority of Poles in fact disagree with the court ruling and approve of the protests. This is not a fringe protest.

But stoking culture wars is a tried and tested tactic for PiS.

Earlier this year, Kaczyński made a brief effort to appeal to younger, more moderate voters by passing new laws on animal rights. But the contested bill threatened to split the ruling coalition and failed to translate into more public support for PiS.

The narrative he is now spinning about the anti-abortion-law protests shows he’s gone back to basics: He is seeking to galvanize his base and close any gaps to the right of the party that could be exploited by the far-right justice minister and would-be-rival Zbigniew Ziobro.

Over the past two years, PiS has created a false dichotomy between itself as the protector of traditional Polish values and political opponents who are pro-LGTBQ rights or pro-migration and are thus supposedly seeking to undermine the Polish way of life. The party’s success in the polls shows that a portion of the electorate responds well to these tactics.

Once again, PiS’s conservative-values message appears to be resonating among right-wing and radical voters. On the streets, far-right nationalists are confronting female protesters and making human shields in front of churches.

Stoking an “us versus them” narrative also has another upside: It serves to distract from the government’s struggle to contain the coronavirus crisis, as Poland faces a spike the likelihood of a devastating second wave and the difficulty of navigating the economic fallout.

Already, Kaczyński has claimed that demonstrators are committing “a serious crime” by taking to the streets while COVID-19 continues to rage. He has said their actions are putting the lives of ordinary Poles in danger. The timing of the protests is convenient for the government: It can easily blame demonstrators if the number of infections starts climbing again. 

The government’s strategy does carry real risks, however, beyond the damage already done by the court decision to women’s rights: An escalating culture war that plays on people’s fears and sense of identity may well spill over into real violence, as happened two years ago, with the murder of Paweł Adamowicz, the liberal mayor of Gdansk who had criticized the ruling party’s xenophobic politics and stood up for LGBTQ rights and migrants.

Europe shouldn’t be a silent bystander as Poland implodes. The European Commission has to speak up. Not only must it condemn the restriction of women’s access to safe and legal abortion, and the attacks to children’s right to sex education; it must also take a much harder stance on the deterioration of the rule of law in Poland. Warsaw cannot be allowed to get away with openly abusing, harassing and intimidating judges and prosecutors who are seeking to defend the rule of law.

Instead of never-ending and ineffective dialogue, the EU should take more concrete steps. The Commission must finally act and launch an infringement procedure in relation to the unlawfully composed Constitutional Court and the National Judicial Council.

If PiS had not brought these institutions under its control, it would not have been able to roll back the human rights of Polish women and undermine the country’s democracy. The EU cannot afford to let Poland off the hook on this one.

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