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LGBT+ civil rights hang in the balance in Poland’s knife-edge presidential election ǀ View

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Poland is heading for a second round of voting on Sunday after none of the eleven presidential candidates secured enough votes for an outright victory. The incumbent, Andrzej Duda, who won 43.5 per cent of the votes, will face the Mayor of Warsaw, Rafał Trzaskowski who secured 30.5 per cent, in what polls suggest will be a knife-edge election.

While many issues are on the table for voters, this presidential election is particularly significant for the country’s LGBT+ community. President Duda has led a campaign against LGBT+ rights; something liberal Trzaskowski, on the other hand, is opposing. But for a country that continues to make global headlines for its growing intolerance towards LGBT+ people, is Poland ready for a pro-LGBT+ president?

President Duda has promised to “defend children from LGBT ideology” if he is re-elected and has proposed greater restrictions on LGBT+ people, including a new constitutional amendment to ban same-sex adoption. He has gained popularity in Catholic Poland, with his homophobic rhetoric and commitment to preserving the country’s so-called traditional family values. This homophobia is also mirrored by members of Duda’s Law and Justice (PiS) party, who have made equally controversial anti-LGBT+ comments. I would argue that the homophobia exhibited from the country’s leadership has infiltrated across Polish society, green lighting a resurgence in extreme right-wing views. A third of Poland has now declared itself an “LGBT-free zone,” concretising an acceptance of societal intolerance in rural Poland. The more diverse cities of Poland may have tired of Duda’s homophobia, but the same clearly cannot be said for the rest of the country.

Trzaskowski’s pro-LGBT+ politics might have worked in Warsaw, but he will certainly struggle for votes from rural communities with more conservative and religious values. Moreover, should Trzaskowski win, he may struggle to extinguish the fires of homophobia - fanned by Duda - that currently burn across Poland
Hadley Stewart

Of course, LGBT+ equality isn’t the only issue on the minds of the Polish electorate, with the economy and healthcare taking precedence at a time of a global pandemic and subsequent economic recession. In fact, a recent IBRiS poll found that only 8 per cent of those surveyed were concerned about LGBT+ rights in this election. This means that Duda’s homophobic rhetoric could only get him so far with voters, and his recent handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the country’s economy will also be taken to task.

That being said, the same pollster also revealed that men under 40 thought that LGBT+ rights were the biggest threat to Polish society. Whilst the debate regarding greater equality for LGBT+ people might not be the most important issue on the minds of voters, it seems to me that it is one that could swing voters who are currently undecided.

Trzaskowski has somewhat of an uphill battle when it comes to securing enough votes from an electorate that seems opposed to some of his more liberal policies. As the first Mayor of Warsaw to attend the capital’s Pride parade, he has been widely regarded in Poland as a pro-LGBT+ politician. As mayor, he has been vocal about his support for the LGBT+ community, saying that he would be in favour of civil partnerships for same-sex couples, and proposed the inclusion of LGBT+ topics in the capital’s sex education programme. His stance on LGBT+ rights is arguably the complete opposite to his opponent, but in the run-up to the elections, Trzaskowski echoed Duda in his opposition to the adoption of children by LGBT+ couples.

Although this will be disappointing for LGBT+ people, Trzaskowski’s stance might be more to do with political tactics than genuine opposition. Trzaskowski’s Civic Platform (PO) party says it is against Duda’s proposed constitutional reform that could see adoption being granted only to heterosexual couples. This means that whilst Trzaskowski has no plans to introduce adoption by LGBT+ couples, he isn’t planning on an outright ban either. Much of Duda’s homophobic rhetoric has focused upon the “protection” of children. It could be argued that the suggestion of allowing adoption for LGBT+ couples could be one step too far for an electorate that has lived under the leadership of a homophobic president.

Trzaskowski has also been criticised for toning down his vocal support for the LGBT+ community ahead of the elections, but I don’t think this is a coincidence. He is attempting to win over the hearts and minds of an electorate whose status quo has been one of anti-equality and conservatism. This means that Trzaskowski has to tread carefully when it comes to his LGBT+ policies if he is to secure enough votes.

Could he be the next president of Poland? His liberal policies will certainly be a breath of fresh air for LGBT+ Poles, and voters who are tired of Duda’s extreme right-wing politics. On the other hand, I doubt the whole country is ready for such a huge shift. Trzaskowski’s pro-LGBT+ politics might have worked in Warsaw, but he will certainly struggle for votes from rural communities with more conservative and religious values. Moreover, should Trzaskowski win, he may struggle to extinguish the fires of homophobia - fanned by Duda - that currently burn across Poland.

A victory for President Duda, however, would be disastrous for the Polish LGBT+ community and could trigger a broader erosion of legal rights for LGBT+ people across the rest of Eastern Europe. This is arguably one of the most important elections for civil rights in this part of our continent.

  • Hadley Stewart is a London-based writer, broadcaster and medical journalist

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