Analysis: protest leaders hostile towards mainstream parties

Leaders of the “Women’s strike” movement which is coordinating protests against the constitutional court ruling banning ‘eugenic’ abortions have expressed hostility towards any idea of working with leaders of the mainstream opposition parties.

The protests that have taken place in dozens of Polish cities have received support from opposition figures from the Civic Platform (PO), the Left and from Szymon Hołownia’s “Poland 2050” movement. But that support has not been welcomed.

The protest leader's message to the former presidential candidates, Warsaw Mayor Rafał Trzaskowski (PO) and Szymon Hołownia was very unparliamentary and graphic. They told them to “f*** off.

The women don’t want to get into bed with the opposition

In a social media post responding to Mr Hołownia’s post criticising the Law and Justice (PiS) leader Jarosław Kaczyński for his condemnation of the protests the women’s leaders wrote “can someone tell Mr Hołownia to “f… off. We have a revolution to run and don’t have the time to bother with every political buffoon who wants to use us to boost his own popularity.”

On Thursday they had the same message for the leader of the Polish People’s Party Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz. He proposed that a compromise on abortion rights should be written into the Polish constitution. The protest leaders replied with the words quoted in the paragraph above.

Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz had proposed that the constitution should be changed to allow abortion in cases of a danger to a mother’s health or life, illegal acts such as rape and incest having been the cause of the pregnancy and in cases of serious or lethal defects of the fetus.

The leaders of the protest movement however are campaigning for abortion on demand and are not interested in any more compromises on the issue. They are also demanding a change of government, the end to religious education in schools and the dismissal of the judges in the constitutional court.

They do not want to be tainted by the opposition parties’ past. They remember only too well how past PO and Leftist administrations failed to deliver on women’s and LGBT rights and compromised with the Catholic Church in order to have its support over important matters such as Poland joining the EU. Nor were they impressed by the electoral failures of all the opposition parties.

Learning the lessons of the protest movement 2015-2017

The radical women leading the protests do not want to end up like the leaders and activists of the Committee in Defence of Democracy (KOD), a movement which sprung up in 2015 to lead protests against the PiS government’s judicial reforms. That movement petered out and eventually was largely absorbed by the mainstream Civic Coalition led by the Civic Platform (PO).

The leader of KOD, Mateusz Kijowski had pursued a strategy of welcoming support from all the opposition parties. And the opposition parties were very willing to let KOD make some of the early running in building up a protest movement against PiS. But once Mr Kijowski got into hot water over alimony payments and lack of transparency over the funding of KOD and how much of it was ending up in his own pocket, the opposition parties began to distance themselves from the organisation and began to absorb some of its activists into their own ranks.

Marta Lempart is a more radical and hard nosed figure. She and her colleagues have experience of work in the feminist movement and civil society organisations. They are instinctively suspicious of the motives of the mainstream opposition parties.

In ideological terms they also have every right to suspect that the PO, PSL, Mr Hołownia and even parts of the Left caucus simply want to use the protests to get into power. But once that power was attained they would not deliver on abortion on demand, removing religion from schools or same sex marriage for fear of upsetting culturally conservative parts of their electorates.

This is why the women’s leaders are pursuing a strategy of radicalisation and open hostility towards the mainstream opposition parties. They want to build their own movement so that it is strong enough to force its demands onto the opposition parties. The only opposition party they seem to have anything in common with is the “Together” party, which was founded in opposition to the post-communist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) and which has campaigned for social justice and gender equality consistently since its foundation. They also feel some sympathy towards Robert Biedroń, the former mayor of Słupsk and LGBT rights activist. But even they, as far as the women's movement is concerned, are tainted by the fact that they had to compromise and form an electoral and parliamentary alliance with the former SLD and Mr Biedroń is tainted by his presidential defeat (he polled little over two percent of the vote).

The downside of radicalism and going it alone

There is however a problem with such an approach. The support they are getting is a mix of people who genuinely oppose the constitutional court ruling and those who do not like the lockdown and the PiS government for its cultural conservatism. But it does not automatically follow that all the demands the “Women’s Strike” are making will be supported by all those young people out on the streets.

The demands are indeed revolutionary. Removing all constitutional court judge, abortion on demand, same sex marraige and compulsory sex education would all be unconstituonal. To achieve these objectives the constitution would have to be changed. For that to have any chance of happening the present Parliament would have to be dissolved and a new one elected.

Marta Lempart, the de facto leader of the “Women’s Strike” movement on Thursday admitted that she and her sisters were demanding the resignation of the government and the calling of fresh elections. She claimed that the last parliamentary and presidential elections were not fully free and should therefore be voided.

The last demand is totally impossible. The OSCE may have criticised some features of the election in Poland but its observers mission stated clearly that the elections were free and the results transparent. Moreover, the election was certified by the state election body PKW and validated by the Supreme Court. The opposition protested about certain aspects of the conduct of the elections but fully accepted their results.

The women’s movement may therefore overreach itself. Already 43 percent of those surveyed are saying they don’t back the protests, whereas 73 percent oppose the constitutional court’s ruling. This may be because of some of the radical demands and attacks on churches that have taken place.

The leaders of the “Women’s Strike” are however taking note. Their tactics seem to be changing away from any direct action against churches and towards making the ruling party and its figures the focal points at which the people should vent their spleen. But that also entails dangers. Should any of the politicians suffer physical attacks or worse the public mood could change significantly. Radical language such as those of “war” and the vulgarisms directed at the politicians may then be seen in a different light.

The opposition parties such as the PO, PSL, Mr Hołownia’s movement and even parts of the Left will only support the women’s movement as long as it is popular rather than discredited. If it remains popular and gains ground some of these parties will look seriously at making the demands of the women a part of their platforms. However, if the movement is discredited they will be far more cautious and selective about being associated with this movement.

Something similar happening on the right

On the right the reaction by those organisations that have come forward to defend the churches against the protesters is similar. They too don’t want to be associated with the mainstream party of the right that is Law and Justice (PiS). They do not like the lock down, feel that PiS is too ‘soft’ on the protests and still remember that it has taken PiS five years to take any action to stop ‘eugenic abortions’. They also see PiS as pro-EU and opposed to the rights to bear arms.

“Confederation” is a party they feel closer to on the right. It is a party made up of nationalists who have been organising the November 11 independence day marches, the libertarian conservatives led by the veteran Janusz Korwin-Mikke, monarchists led by film director Grzegorz Braun who has been vocal in the movement protesting against making face protectors compulsory and also pro-life activists who have been campaigning for outlawing abortion for decades.

Even a cursory glance at social media from the newly founded “National Guard”, the organisation to watch over churches, will show how the activists engaged have little time for PiS. They were already engaged in their action before the leader of PiS Jarosław Kaczyński called for people to guard religious temples. Indeed, they view his call as an attempt by PiS to take over what they have initiated.

PiS and PO have been in the political game since the turn of the century. To survive you have to be capable of using the ideas and energy of others. Both these major Polish parties have survived, partly by skillfully co opting others. Not surprising that neither the Women’s Strike nor those guarding the temples necessarily want to be swallowed up by them.