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Could Polish president Duda’s anti-LGBT rhetoric spell trouble for PiS?

Polish President Andrzej Duda’s focus on the “LGBT threat” is a retreat to a well-used trope ahead of the presidential elections. But will it work, asks Martin Mycielski.

[Article originally published in EURACTIV on June 19th, 2020]

In my commentary on the swapping of presidential candidates by the opposition Civic Platform (PO) – from the lacklustre Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska to Warsaw mayor Rafał Trzaskowski – I predicted that PiS-backed incumbent Andrzej Duda and his staff would have a hard time finding new attack angles against the young and hip candidate. The President has proved me right.

Last Saturday, in a speech already cited around the world, the President echoed a Law and Justice (PiS) deputy minister, Jacek Żalek, who had been kicked out of a Skype TV interview the night before. Both claimed that “LGBT are not people”, but a dangerous “ideology” threatening the nation (“worse than communism” according to Duda). Just hours later another Duda lackey, Przemysław Czarnek MP, elaborated on live TV: “Let’s stop talking about stupidities like human rights. These people [LGBT] are not equal to normal people”. PiS vice-chair Joachim Brudziński was equally frank, tweeting “Poland without LGBT is the most beautiful.”

If these words sound shocking to a Western-European reader (or, frankly, anyone), they shouldn’t. They’re only the natural next step after about a third of Polish counties and regions having infamously declared themselves “LGBT-free zones”. The connotations with Nazi-era declarations of areas being judenfrei (free of Jews) are hard to ignore. I’d risk saying Poland is only 16 points away from gas chambers at this point, as that’s our score (out of 100) in this year’s Rainbow Map Index, which examines non-discrimination and protection measures for LGBTI people. A drop by 2 points since last year and by 10 since PiS came to power in 2015. European Commission VP Věra Jourová rightfully threatened to cut funding to these regions for “violating fundamental rights like equality, enshrined in both EU law and the Polish constitution”.

But Poles are having a bit of a déjà vu. The “LGBT threat” was also the focus of Law and Justice’s 2019 EP campaign. Then, just as now, supreme leader Kaczyński and his followers blasted Trzaskowski (as an embodiment of the entire pro-democratic opposition) for his pro-equality views. There is one crucial difference though – in 2019 the Warsaw mayor did in fact sign into law the “LGBT+ charter” – a set of anti-discrimination proposals based on WHO recommendations. This year on the other hand, he hasn’t been heard uttering the acronym “LGBT” during his campaign even once.

This clearly shows that Duda’s campaign, going hand-in-hand with Nowogrodzka (a metonym for the PiS party, being its headquarters), hasn’t found any new narrative to attack their unexpected opponent with. Meanwhile, Trzaskowski’s unofficial campaign motto is “new solidarity” – understood as a rebuilding and reunification of the Polish community. His views on equality are obvious – as Trzaskowski himself admitted – but they’re nowhere to be found in his campaign speeches or ads.

On the one hand this could inspire hope in those wishing for Poland’s return to the division of powers, with an opposition president providing checks and balances for the PiS government. Duda’s support has been steadily dropping, with polls giving him barely 40% of the vote and an equal standing with any of the main three counter-candidates in the second round, compared to an easy, nearly-60% first-round win back in March. Having no new campaign proposals, nor accusations against his opponents, one could see it as a straight road out of the Presidential Palace for Duda

On the other hand, as political analyst Anna Mierzyńska notes: “Fearmongering with LGBT ideology profits PiS in multiple ways. It mobilises, consolidates, wakes up the Church, messes with Trzaskowski’s activities, slightly reinforces Robert Biedroń [the left candidate] – which also profits them as it weakens Trzaskowski. So they will keep at it. It’s political business, calculated for profit.” 

The question is of course if this will be enough. With elections approaching in under 2 weeks, it seems hardly likely that this course will change the tide. If the tendency holds, Duda’s first round win will be left in the dust. It’s therefore worth asking not if he’ll face an opponent in the second round, but who this opponent should be. Current polls give Trzaskowski a clear advantage over his pro-democratic colleagues. But that poses another problem: the Warsaw mayor is visibly more polarising than two of his rivals, the centrist TV personality Szymon Hołownia & agrarian Christian-democrat Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz. Both of these, according to most polls, would stand a better chance against the incumbent in the second round, snatching more right-wing votes than a candidate of the liberal (at least for Polish standards) Civic Platform.

This leaves liberal Poles with a conundrum – vote with their heart, for the liberal president they’ve always wanted, or vote pragmatically, for one of the candidates most likely to overthrow Kaczyński’s puppet and accessory to his numerous rule of law violations. Even I myself – despite supporting Trzaskowski’s campaign and having multiple friends in the PO – remain undecided. And for the first time in my life it’s possible I won’t make my choice until I hold the ballot in my hands on June 28th.