The politics of Covid-19: Europe’s rightwing leaders see opportunity in crisis

With all eyes on the global pandemic, Poland’s ruling party is trying to limit women's rights and extend power. Marzena Zukowska reports

April 15, 2020 · 9 min read
Protesters block traffic in Warsaw. Credit: Piotr Łapiński | LAPP PRESS FOTO

With the international news media dominated by coronavirus updates and lockdowns keeping domestic opponents out of sight, a number of European governments are finding opportunities to consolidate right-wing agendas.

On March 30, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán won a parliamentary vote that granted him the power to rule by decree without a set time limit under the guise of fighting the coronavirus. In a national context of ‘creeping fascism’ and curtailed press freedoms, this alarming move made international headlines and prompted European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to threaten legal proceedings. Recent moves by the Polish government are similarly concerning but worryingly have garnered little attention outside of Poland. 

With all eyes trained on global pandemic updates, the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) has quietly moved towards curbing access to abortions and outlawing sex education, and is refusing international calls to postpone presidential elections scheduled for May 10 – knowing that low voter turnout will work in its favour. With limited options for mass protest, activists are looking for creative ways to amplify opposition voices.

Resistance in the midst of a curfew

On April 6, the Polish government website published a list of proposals to be debated in parliament just over a week later, during its April 15-16 session. The list included a ‘citizen’s initiative’ submitted by reknown anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ campaigner Kaja Godek that, if passed into law, would effectively criminalise 98 per cent of currently legal abortions. Other proposals scheduled for parliamentary debate seek to prevent doctors prescribing contraceptives to people under 18 and to criminalise teachers of sex education.

Poland already boasts some of the most stringent regulations on reproductive and sexual health in Europe. On February 11 – just weeks before Covid-19 monopolised our thoughts – the Council of Europe demanded that Polish authorities make legal abortion more accessible. Just two months later, Godek’s proposal threatens to achieve the opposite, striking down foetal abnormality as one of the main conditions under which abortion can take place and limiting pregnant women’s right to reliable information about the health of their own foetus.

Curfews and bans on public assembly are undoubtedly helping stem the spread of Covid-19. They are however also providing PiS with the rare opportunity to appease allies in the Catholic Churchwhile avoiding otherwise inevitable mass protest. The iconic umbrella-wielding Black Protest (Czarny Protest) that greeted similar legislative attempts to ban abortion in 2016 instigated a national strike and prompted international condemnation of the proposals, effectively freezing them in the parliamentary commission. Now, with the country in lockdown, they are back on the agenda.

In response, feminist activists from the Polish Women’s Strike, The Federation for Women and Family Planning (FEDERA), and other groups have been mobilising online and offline opposition under the banners of #OdrzucProjektGodek (throw out Godek’s project) and #PiekloKobiet (women’s hell). Armed with masks and hand sanitizer, activists have been plastering posters across cities, blockading traffic, hanging banners on balconies, and protesting in queues at grocery shops – all while observing social distancing rules. In the UK, the group Dziewuchy London covered the Polish Embassy in homemade placards over Easter weekend. 

More events are scheduled in opposition to the upcoming parliamentary elections, which threaten to undermine the democratic process by excluding millions of Polish overseas residents and endangering citizens’ lives. The decision to go ahead with the May 10 poll has drawn widespread criticism, including from Poland’s Electoral Commission. The move comes as no surprise, low turnout is set to significantly boost the vote share of PiS candidate and current president Andrzej Duda.

International moves to the right

The coronavirus crisis is providing a veil under which right-wing patriarchal forces around the global are attempting to extend their power and influence, including by limiting women’s reproductive rights. Efforts to restrict access to safe and legal abortions have already been reported in Italy and the United States, as well as in Poland. In response, the World Health Organization, Amnesty International, and over a hundred other human rights organisations have called for the expansion of remote abortion services, like making pills available by mail and removing administrative wait periods.

Meanwhile, in Hungary, Orbán’s government is doubling its efforts to end legal gender recognition of transgender people one of a raft of dubious policies it is attempting to pass under the veil of Covid-19. Across Europe, unilateral orders to shut national borders – among a number of political choices made by national leaders that defied EU calls for collaborative decision-making – may spell doom for the Schengen zone, and EU solidarity, in the long term, both core right-wing goals.

While commentators debate what Europe, and the world, will look like post-lockdown, we at least know that Covid-19 will have a deep and lasting impact on the way we live. We must however ensure that our new reality is not shaped by laws passed while we were stuck in lockdown, distracted by the crisis.

A petition by Polonia Glosuje calling for Poland to postpone its May 10 elections is available on

Marzena Zukowska is a journalist and activist with Dziewuchy London. You can follow her on twitter @MarzenaZukowska.

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