Polish ruling coalition partners clash after speaker delays bills to liberalise abortion law

The left and centre-right wings of Poland’s broad ruling coalition have clashed following a decision by the speaker of parliament to delay the processing of bills aimed at ending the near-total abortion ban introduced under the former government.

On Monday, Szymon Hołownia announced that the abortion bills would not come before parliament until 11 April, four days after local elections take place around Poland. He argued that this was necessary to avoid the legislation becoming a victim of the ongoing election campaign.

If parliamentary debate took place now, both sides would feel under pressure to take tough positions, making it hard to find a compromise, claimed Hołownia. But after the elections, “there will be space to talk a little more calmly”, he added, quoted by broadcaster RMF.

Marszałek Sejmu Szymon Hołownia podjął decyzję, by projekty dotyczące aborcji były procedowane w Sejmie 11 kwietnia, tuż po pierwszej turze wyborów samorządowych. Decyzja ta jest efektem długich rozmów i konsultacji – podkreślił Hołownia. Projekty miały być przedmiotem prac na…

— Fakty RMF FM (@RMF24pl) March 5, 2024

Hołownia is one of the leaders of the centre-right Third Way (Trzecia Droga), a junior partner in the ruling coalition – led by Donald Tusk’s centrist Civic Coalition (KO) – that replaced the national-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) government in December.

Both KO and The Left (Lewica), the other junior partner in Tusk’s coalition, have put forward bills that would not only reverse the near-total abortion ban introduced in 2021 under PiS, but go even further by allowing abortion on demand. The Left’s was submitted in November, and KO’s in January.

But last month, Third Way submitted an alternative bill that would instead return to the pre-2021 abortion law, which was already one of the strictest in Europe, allowing pregnancies to be terminated only if they threatened a mother’s life or health, resulted from a crime, or if a birth defect was diagnosed.

The centre-right wing of Poland’s ruling coalition has proposed a bill to reverse the near-total abortion ban introduced in 2021 but not allow abortion on demand, as its coalition partners want

It says only such a „compromise” has a chance of being passedhttps://t.co/zwRu08jWoB

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) February 24, 2024

Speaking yesterday, Hołownia argued that if parliament proceeds with the various abortion bills now, there is a danger that all of them will be rejected because parties are less willing to compromise ahead of the elections.

“An election campaign as fierce and as hot as we are currently having could destroy all these bills and the hopes that accompany them,” he declared.

As an olive branch, the speaker also said that he and his political party would vote in favour of KO and The Left’s proposals proceeding to a second reading, even if he disagreed with them personally. Hołownia, a practising Catholic, has expressed opposition to abortion on demand in the past.

– Klub Polski 2050 wszystkie projekty w sprawie aborcji przepuści do drugiego czytania – zadeklarował @szymon_holownia, marszałek Sejmu i lider Polski 2050.https://t.co/lu7HfT3VQc

— tvn24 (@tvn24) March 6, 2024

The speaker’s announcement was, however, met with anger from The Left. “Women’s rights are nowhere to be seen or heard,” tweeted the head of the group’s parliamentary caucus, Anna-Maria Żukowska.

“Continually postponing this issue is cowardice,” wrote deputy justice minister, Krzysztof Śmiszek. “Women’s rights NOW!”

Another member of the government – family, labour and social policy minister Agnieszka Dziemianowicz-Bąk – said that when voters decide who to support in the local elections, they should remember which parties before coming to power “had plenty to say about freedom and women’s rights but later buried their heads in the sand”.

Co wspólnego mają wybory samorządowe z prawami kobiet? Na przykład to, że można w nich NIE głosować na tych, którzy tych praw kobietom odmawiają. pic.twitter.com/CziRSpAsli

— A. Dziemianowicz-Bąk (@AgaBak) March 5, 2024

“If Szymon Hołownia thought that by postponing the processing of these bills, he would make the local elections not about abortion, he was very wrong. These local elections will be about abortion and women’s rights,” said equality minister Katarzyna Kotula at a press conference of The Left today.

“Speaker Hołownia is afraid that if the bills to liberalise the abortion law fail due to the votes of the Third Way, they will have to face the anger of women and their votes at the ballot box,” she continued.

“Go to these elections and show a red card to those who, after 30 years of a barbaric [abortion] law being in force, still tell you: ‘not now, someday, later’,” declared Kotula.

– Te wybory samorządowe są o aborcji – mówi ministra @KotulaKat, która razem z @AgaBak zarzucają marszałkowi @szymon_holownia blokowanie ustaw dotyczących aborcji w zamrażarce/chłodni. @wirtualnapolska pic.twitter.com/moOn7BuTNi

— Patryk Michalski (@patrykmichalski) March 6, 2024

Meanwhile, a deputy speaker of parliament, Krzysztof Bosak of the far-right Confederation (Konfederacja), told broadcaster TVP that Hołownia had said during a meeting that he was delaying the abortion bills because some MPs are afraid of “offending parish priests” ahead of the elections.

Bosak added that he believes the speaker was referring to MPs from the agrarian Polish People’s Party (PSL) – which is part of Third Way alongisde Hołownia’s Poland 2050 (Polska 2050) party – and Tusk’s Civic Platform (PO) party.

Żukowska responded to Bosak’s remarks by saying that she can “confirm this is exactly what Hołownia said about parish priests” at the meeting in question.

Hołownia, however, received backing from PSL leader Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz, who said that the speaker had made the “right decision” to delay the abortion bills, which should not be allowed to become “part of the [election] campaign”.

Dokładnie to o proboszczach powiedział @szymon_holownia na odchodnym wczorajszego Konwentu Seniorów, potwierdzam. https://t.co/fLe8bh7l0o

— Anna-Maria Żukowska 💁🏻‍♀️ (@AM_Zukowska) March 6, 2024

Notes from Poland is run by a small editorial team and published by an independent, non-profit foundation that is funded through donations from our readers. We cannot do what we do without your support.

Main image credit: Sejm RP (under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 PL)

Daniel Tilles is editor-in-chief of Notes from Poland. He has written on Polish affairs for a wide range of publications, including Foreign PolicyPOLITICO EuropeEUobserver and Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.

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