The Future of Polish Democracy

Protest against abortion restriction in Kraków, October 2020
Protest against abortion restriction in Kraków, October 2020

Warsaw’s gripping standoff with Brussels over the rule-of-law mechanism in the EU budget has overshadowed an even bigger story: the emergence of a new “democratic generation” of voters who are fed up with the political status quo.

As Warsaw and Budapest face off against Brussels over a rule of law mechanism in the EU budget, Poland’s culture war at home rumbles on. The Women’s Strike (Strajk kobiet) movement still roiling the country more than a month since it kicked off is on its surface a popular rebellion against the Constitutional Tribunal’s restrictive interpretation of the country’s abortion law that would ban abortions in cases of congenital birth defects. But its significance is broader than that. It is the latest chapter in the emergence of a new political order in Poland — a gelling of opposition to a years’ long effort by the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) coalition government to promote — many would say impose — traditional Christian values in Polish society.

These demonstrations may be a manifestation of a deeper generational shift in Poland, one which correlates with the coming of age, politically and professionally, of what we might call the “democratic generation,” the first generation with no memory of the country’s communist past. (A recent poll showed that while 70% of Poles supported the strikers, nearly 1 in 3 Poles between the ages of 18-24 age stated that they had taken part in the demonstrations.) In that sense, the strike potentially carries with it the seeds of a more profound debate over how the nation’s culture and politics will evolve in the next decade.

The Women’s Strike is unlikely to remain solely focused on abortion. Increasingly strikers say they are marching against police violence, while others have brought up issues surrounding Polish national identity. For example, some of the protest’s leaders have called for a “quarantine of nationalism” while several activists began the latest round of demonstrations by symbolically re-naming a square in Warsaw “Women’s Rights Roundabout.” The square is currently named for Roman Dmowski, one of the founders of modern Poland, though protesters have hung a new sign over the one bearing his name and called on the authorities to formally approve the name change.

Others, seemingly looking to reshape political parties, appear to have rejected the opposition as it is currently structured. Case in point: as the protestors’ coordinating body, the Consultative Council, announced that it would include members of the opposition Civic Platform, the level of engagement with the strike on social media dropped by 97%. This suggests that the movement has its own momentum, and more importantly, its own constituency, one less inclined to lend its support to established political parties, even those that oppose the PiS.

The movement is not rich on specifics — though a number of activists are demanding more liberal abortion laws — but rather expresses a sense of alienation among Polish youth angered at an establishment whose politics are perceived to threaten their right to decide their future (prawo do samostanowienia). This is in some respects a youth rebellion folded into a struggle over abortion, resting largely on a rejection of the status quo.

The leaders of the strike may be overshooting – teeing up an agenda that stretches beyond the issues that provoked the demonstrations and one for which there is little support. Poland is still a traditional society. The core PiS electorate remains wedded to the Catholic Church and its teachings, and to patriotic politics. A radical political program to upend all these things could have the unintended consequence of mobilizing them in opposition.

If the activists continue on this trajectory, the movement may burn out; on the other hand, if they are not perceived as threatening to more mainstream voters and tap into broader fatigue with the PiS government, they may give birth to a new political party, one rooted in the ethos of the post-1989 generation of men and women who, unlike many of their political predecessors, feel at home in Europe writ large.

What has surprised observers of Polish politics is how quickly this new generation has emerged in a country whose very survival historically depended on nurturing national traditions, for these anchors proved pivotal to the country’s re-emergence from the century-plus of partitions and the half-century of Soviet-imposed communism. The key test for the Women’s Strike is whether it can mobilize passions among younger voters while also striking a chord with the more traditional electorate in the country.

Regardless of how the situation evolves, the movement should be understood in the broader context of Poland’s post-communist political trajectory. The country is still grappling with the legacy of communism, and for the first time coming to terms with the still-unusual idea that it can shape its own destiny, and by extension choose which aspects of its heritage will define its politics.

December 4, 2020

Common Crisis is a CEPA analytical series on the implications of COVID-19 for the transatlantic relationship. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.