Women drive political change in Poland | International

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Millions of women marched through the streets of Poland in 2020 when the Constitutional Court, at the request of deputies from the ultra-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, declared abortion illegal also in cases of fetal malformation. They protested again when a woman died because the doctors had not performed an abortion in time on an unviable pregnancy. And when they found out about the death of another, and another; up to six, let it be known. Last Sunday they came out en masse again, this time heading to the polls, to say enough is enough. And they did it. The unprecedented mobilization of women in the Polish legislative elections was decisive in the victory of the liberal opposition bloc, which now has the majority necessary to form a government.

Marta Lempart is one of the promoters of those marches and has accumulated more than 100 complaints and lawsuits for her activism. On the last day of the election campaign, Friday, October 13, she arrives at 9:00 at her office in Warsaw accompanied by her two dogs. Also, two undercover agents who monitor, at a reasonable distance, that the death threats against her are not carried out, and at the same time, control her steps, according to her account. The Strajk Kobiet (Women's Strike) headquarters is an armored bunker with high security measures. Lempart's office, a refuge with a large window and a wall papered with floral motifs. There, over coffee, she explains that the abortion protests, organized in more than 600 cities and towns of all sizes, have contributed to changing the political landscape of the country.

In 2019, 43% of women voted for PiS, according to data from exit polls by the polling company Ipsos. “That's going to change,” she confidently predicts two days before the elections. Lempart, tall and energetic, remembers some statements by party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, such as when she said that “pregnant women also have the right to live.” “Too!”, she emphasizes indignantly.

The 44-year-old activist was right. The same Ipsos polls this year recorded that women's support for the ultra-conservative party has fallen to 36.5%, 6.5 points less than in the previous call. The mobilization of female voters was also historic: those first polls recorded a female participation of 74.7%. That of men was also a record, 73.1%, but more than a point and a half below. And above all: the aggregate vote of women for the three opposition candidates with the possibility of removing PiS from power totaled 56.1%, compared to 50% in the case of men.

“Women's vote reached an unprecedented level,” says Wojciech Przybylski, analyst at the think tank Visegrad Insight. The expert emphasizes that, according to another exit poll (from OGB Pro), the second issue that voters declared as a reason for voting, after the economic situation, was abortion and women's rights, with 16, 5% responses. The expert assures that “being a woman in Poland is dangerous.” Interrupting a pregnancy is a crime, and there are doctors who avoid it even in the few permitted cases.

The black protests in favor of abortion began in 2016, when the Government proposed restricting it, and exploded four years later, when the Constitutional ruling practically completely prohibited it. Sociologist Magdalena Grabowska, from the Polish Academy of Sciences, remembers that she compared them to those of the Solidarity union that ended the communist regime. What this gender studies expert and her colleagues have been wondering since 2020 is to what extent the parties would pick up the demands of this movement.

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Grabowska believes that, in a male-dominated political landscape, this has not yet happened. And she is not only referring to abortion, access to the morning-after pill, or public financing of assisted reproduction treatments, struck down by the ultra-conservative PiS government. Women, the sociologist points out, also want changes in fundamental issues such as access to work, healthcare, the separation of Church and State, and education, to name a few.

Mobilization campaigns

Before the elections, according to Lempart, “it became the favorite sport of men in the political elite” to blame women for the fact that the PiS Government would get a third term because many did not plan to go to vote. “They were characterized as lazy, passive, conservative,” Grabowska also points out in a video call.

To counteract this abstention that some surveys reported, civil society - abortion defense organizations, feminist groups and other more conservative ones, activists for the rule of law, etc. - famous and influencers, and the parties launched to mobilize the female vote. Agnieszka Pomaska, deputy and candidate of the center-right liberal party Civic Platform (PO), traveled 13,000 kilometers on a bus with her “women for elections” campaign, together with her partner Barbara Nowacka.

The Strajk Kobiet movement focused its campaign, mainly on social networks, on young people who participated in the pro-abortion demonstrations. With the motto Vote for abortiontried to convince them that their protest would not be complete if they did not achieve a parliamentary majority to turn it into law, regardless of what they thought of the policy. The vote of young people, among whom a high abstention rate was also expected, was equally decisive in these elections.

Feminism is making its way very slowly in Poland, with setbacks. The Left party promoted a 10-point program for equality and PO picked up on the sentiment of the protests and pivoted to its usual position regarding abortion, promising to allow it until the 12th week. The feminist Grabowska, who assures that Donald Tusk's training has done "a fantastic job", at the same time criticizes an "embarrassing" proposal for assistance for the care of children under three years of age, dubbed "grandmother's". Care, again, fell to women—not grandparents—instead of investing in public early childhood education centers. Representative Pomaska ​​recognizes that the name was not accurate and they changed it to “active mom.” Beyond the name, she defends the concept to promote the incorporation of women into the workplace.

Record of candidates

In these elections, women have broken other records, apart from participation. Among the lists for the Sejm – the lower House of Parliament – ​​there have never been so many candidates, with 44% of the total. But not all formations have zipper lists, such as PO and the Left, and the first positions are occupied more by men than women. The result is that of the 460 seats, 136 will be occupied by women, that is, 29.6%. It is also a maximum in Polish democratic history, but it is far from parity.

The women are now monitoring the next moves of the liberal parties that have options to govern if PiS fails, as is foreseeable, in the attempt to set up an Executive. “Women have made this victory possible. Now it is up to the new government to understand and demonstrate that they cannot treat their demands as something marginal,” says Grabowska.

It remains to be seen what position women occupy in that possible Government. Lempart has little faith in seeing female ministers at the head of departments such as Economy, Defense or Interior. “The women will be vice ministers, because obviously someone has to do the job,” she ironically. Pomaska ​​recognizes that it will not be easy to achieve the goal of parity: “It is obvious that the leaders of the three parties are men, but we are not going to stop reminding them that we have won these elections.”

“The number of women who have voted cannot be ignored in the future coalition. And despite everything, they do not have a common position on issues such as reproductive rights,” says analyst Przybylski. Of the three parties that make up the liberal bloc, PO and the Left are in favor of free abortion in the first trimester. The Third Way coalition, however, is made up of Christian-conservative parties that promised a referendum during the campaign, without clarifying their position. Now, the leader of the agrarian PSL, Wladyslaw Kosiniak-Kamysz, says that the termination of pregnancy will not be in the government agreement.

“It is an insane, hysterical campaign,” says Lempart. “Two days after the elections, they blackmail Tusk with the issue of abortion. “What's wrong with you?” he asks rhetorically. Strajk Kobiet is ready for the next fight, for the protests that are needed. “We will complain, we will get frustrated,” she predicts. “But we will no longer have to work in a hostile environment in which we are considered enemies of the State; “We will be able to feel safe, without being the target of physical and legal threats,” she continues over Zoom four days after the elections, with the flowered background of her office. “I may be wrong, but now I feel like I can walk down the street with helmets on. I feel like I have lifted a huge burden that I didn't know how much it really weighed until now,” she says with relief. Many women in Poland, like her, have managed to start breathing easier.

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