Choice supporters hold largest protest in history against the Polish government

About one hundred thousand protesters took to the streets of the Polish capital, Warsaw, on Friday, in the largest demonstration of popular anger directed against Poland’s ruling rightwing Law and Justice party (PiS) since it assumed office in 2015.

Protests have been held across the country since Poland’s constitutional tribunal declared earlier this month that abortions in instances where a foetus is diagnosed with a serious and irreversible birth defect were unconstitutional. Such procedures constitute about 96% of legal abortions in Poland, which already has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe.

On Wednesday, pro-choice activists called a “women’s strike” that attracted over 400,000 people to protests in over 400 towns and cities across the central European nation.

Just hours before Friday’s protest, Andrzej Duda, Poland’s right-wing president, announced what he described as a “legislative solution” to the political crisis, proposing that terminations in instances where birth defects are terminal would be allowed. Terminations of foetuses with conditions such as Down’s syndrome would be banned, however.

Strongly criticised by Poland’s medical and legal establishments, Duda’s intervention did little to quell the anger that has left the government and its de facto leader, PiS founder Jarosław Kaczyński, reeling.

On Friday, tens of thousands of protesters gathered at points across the city, chanting “I think, I feel, I decide” and anti-PiS slogans.

The protests, held as the government introduces ever-stricter restrictions in response to a sharp rise in coronavirus infections and fatalities in recent weeks, have been characterised by humorous slogans and placards and the engagement of Poles in their teens and early 20s.

But there were also violent incidents, as bands of nationalists dressed in black attacked protesters on the streets of central Warsaw. According to the Polish police, several of those arrested were carrying knives and batons.

Earlier this week, Kaczyński made an address to the nation calling on his supporters to defend churches from the protests, after services were disrupted and in some instances churches defaced during protests last weekend. Some have blamed the PiS leader for implicitly encouraging far-right groups to attack protesters.

On Friday night, having gathered in the centre of Warsaw, tens of thousands of protesters marched north to the leafy suburb where Kaczyński lives, only to be blocked off by hundreds of riot police.

“I just spoke to a young woman who told me that she is 24, and that she has done nothing for the last six days except protest,” Maja Wojcikowska, one of the protest’s organisers, told broadcaster TVN. “There is an incredible energy, we are not going to waste it.”