Saturday

23rd Mar 2019

Opinion

Polish left a glimmer of hope in fight against illiberal democracy

  • Poland's PiS ruling party's crackdown on the Supreme Court and rule of law has received more attention than its repression of sex education, contraception and abortion (Photo: pis.org.pl)

As we approach the centenary of Poland's independence next month, and ahead of local elections in Poland on Sunday (21 October), left wing MEPs will be in Warsaw to hear from progressive, left forces resisting the far right and standing up for democracy, rule of law and the rights of women and refugees.

Minority rights and women's rights are generally a valuable barometer in gauging the state of fundamental rights in a society.

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For much of the 20th century, Poland had some of the least restrictive abortion laws anywhere in the world.

However, as my MEP colleagues and I visit Warsaw this week ahead of Sunday's local elections, we are much more likely to be hearing about the ruling Law and Justice Party's (PiS) regression, authoritarianism and intolerance from meetings with local feminists and NGOs.

In recent decades, Poland has been failing its women and girls by eroding access to safe and legal abortion through increasingly conservative and sexist policies.

Annually, estimates suggest that up to 150,000 illegal abortions are carried out annually in Poland, with thousands more travelling to neighbouring countries like Slovakia for the procedure.

Meanwhile, women found to have had abortions, and doctors found to have assisted them, face threats by lawmakers to introduce legislation that would land them in jail.

In a damning statement earlier this month, the UN even denounced the Polish government for reaffirming 'stereotypical cultural attitudes' and for caving into the Catholic Church in changing the abortion law to make it practically impossible for women and girls to have safe and legal abortions.

Catholic utopia?

That said, abortion is only one aspect of this crack down on rights, which manifests itself in multiple ways - from the lack of sex education and the inaccessibility of contraceptives, to racism and violence against refugees, to the government's unrelenting purge of the judiciary in order to pursue its own vision of a Catholic utopia.

Dissenting voices in the public media, civil service, cultural and educational spheres, and, of course, the judiciary are being gradually sidelined with the justice minister and attorney general even accusing supreme court judges of standing "on the side of state violence in the service of the ideology of homosexual activists".

Indeed, in a climate of homophobia stoked by the government, LGBTQ people face increasing discrimination and a surge in hate crimes and physical violence.

Indeed, many comparisons are been drawn between what is happening in Poland under the PiS and the so-called 'illiberal democracy' being pushed by Viktor Orban in Hungary.

With a nationalist agenda that leans on authoritarianism, anti-semitism, and Islamophobia, the targets of hate campaigns in both countries have consistently been refugees, minorities and women.

Crucial to the fightback has been ongoing efforts to raise international awareness and pressure. An impressive example of this came in 2016, when the plight of Polish women received worldwide attention and headlines during the Black Protest.

Hundreds of thousands of women donned black clothes and took to the streets to protest attacks on reproductive rights.

This resistance has helped forge a vibrant political alternative to conservative and market-liberal forces in the shape of Razem.

At a time when, whether it is about goings on in Washington DC, Manilla or Budapest, it feels like we are being subjected to endless rolling news coverage of right wing attacks on fundamental freedoms, the feminists of the Polish left are leading a programme for equality, social progress and against racism that inspires hope and has a lot to teach us, wherever we are.

At any point in history, anywhere in the world, courageous women defending their rights should be heard.

In Europe in 2018, it has become a matter of urgent necessity.

Malin Bjork is an MEP from the Swedish Left Party, with the European United Left / Nordic Green Left group in the European Parliament

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