Gay rights and homophobia are likely to be major issues in Poland’s delayed presidential election after the frontrunner pledged to “defend children from LGBT ideology”.
Andrzej Duda, the incumbent president, who is allied with the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, made the pledge while launching a so-called “family charter”, in what appears to be a move to energise the party’s conservative base as polls showed his lead narrowing.
After the vote was moved from 10 May to 28 June owing to the coronavirus pandemic, the liberal mayor of Warsaw, Rafał Trzaskowski, entered the race, and polls suggest that in a run-off against Duda the vote could be split almost evenly.
Trzaskowski, of the centre-right Civic Platform, has been a supporter of LGBT rights as Warsaw mayor, including attending Warsaw pride, the first time a mayor of the capital has done so.
PiS has been accused of democratic backsliding and erosion of the rule of law since winning a parliamentary majority in 2015. It has often hit out at gay rights and what it calls “LGBT ideology”, in rhetoric that is popular with parts of its base and the Catholic church.
Among other things, Duda’s new charter pledges no support for gay marriage or adoption by gay couples, with Duda describing the latter as part of “a foreign ideology”. It also seeks to “ban the propagation of LGBT ideology” in schools and public institutions – language reminiscent of a notorious Russian law targeting so-called “gay propaganda”.
There has been a concerted effort to portray the centrist Trzaskowski as an anti-Polish radical. Last week the pro-government weekly Sieci featured Trzaskowski on its cover wearing a rainbow armband and black hoodie, with the caption “the extremist candidate”.
Jacek Karnowski, the editor-in-chief of Sieci, said the magazine had chosen the cover because the politician was presenting himself as moderate when in fact, during his time as mayor of Warsaw, “he was trying to introduce LGBT ideology into schools and public life”. Karnowski said PiS was focusing on the LGBT issue because it “resonates on an emotional level” with a large part of the Polish population.
Government and church leaders have on various occasions compared “LGBT ideology” to communism, Nazism and the plague. Marek Jędraszewski, the archbishop of Kraków, used an address to mark the religious holiday of Corpus Christi on Thursday to denounce foreign ideologies that he said “undermine the institution of marriage and the family”.
The messaging does have an effect. In a survey last year, when asked to name the biggest threat to Poland, the most popular answer among men under 40 was “the LGBT movement and gender ideology”.
In a statement addressed to Duda this week, Poland’s Campaign Against Homophobia said: “Mr President, let us say it out loudly and clearly once again: there is no such thing as ‘LGBT ideology’, it’s just a homophobic construct. LGBTs are lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender persons who personally experience the consequences of homophobic and transphobic hate which you also fuel.”
On Thursday evening dozens of LGBT people and supporters gathered outside the presidential palace in Warsaw for a “silent disco” in protest at Duda’s charter. A number of opposition politicians called on people not to attend the protest, saying images of it would be used as propaganda and could help PiS win the election.
Those present were angry at Duda’s messaging and also at the lack of support from other candidates. “We need solidarity, but almost all the candidates in the presidential election are scared to be associated with the LGBT community, and that’s scary,” said Jvlia Święch, one of those involved in creating the event.
The election was originally scheduled for May as the PiS leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, was keen to take advantage of polling that suggested Duda would win easily in the first round. It was called off with days to go and rescheduled.. Poland has since relaxed many lockdown rules, although it is recording more new infections per day than in May.
Recent polls suggest the race will be much closer, with Duda projected to win around 40% of the votes in the first round, requiring a second-round run-off that would be held two weeks later.