When the first exit poll came out on the evening of Sunday 12 July, Poland held its breath. The incumbent, ultra-conservative president Andrzej Duda was leading ahead of his more liberal rival Rafał Trzaskowski by less than 1% – within the margin of error. The official results announced the following morning confirmed the hopes of one half of the country and the fears of the other. However tiny his lead, Duda was elected head of state for another five years.
With the highest turnout in 25 years, the election polarised Polish society and energised both sides of the political divide. Many saw it as a referendum on the Law and Justice (PiS) government which has held power since 2015. Throughout this time, it has raised the minimum wage, increased pensions and introduced a hugely popular child benefits programme – while undermining the independence of the courts, attacking NGOs and the media, blocking EU climate targets and threatening to further restrict already very limited abortion rights.
Initially, PiS mobilised its base by warning against Muslim immigrants and campaigning against accepting refugees. However, over the past two years, it switched its focus to demonising the LGBT community, with MPs declaring gay, bisexual and trans people a threat to children and families. Homophobia was also the main theme of Duda’s campaign, with the incumbent describing LGBT “ideology” as “worse than communism” and announcing a “family pledge” which, alongside a commitment to defending child benefits and pensions, included opposition to same-sex marriage and LGBT education in schools.
The pledge was a direct response to Trzaskowski who, as mayor of Warsaw, caused widespread controversy last year by signing an LGBT rights declaration. Trzaskowski stood as a candidate backed by the centre right, moderately conservative Civic Platform (PO) but is regarded as being on the liberal wing of the party. Despite stopping short of endorsing equal marriage or same-sex adoption, he was seen as a clear alternative to Duda and successfully cohered the socially progressive vote around him.
Yet even the opposition largely uniting behind Trzaskowski in the second round proved insufficient to beat the radical right in an overwhelmingly conservative society. This year, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) ranked Poland as the least LGBT-friendly country in the EU, and while nationwide acceptance of queer and trans people continues to slowly but steadily increase, 88% of recently surveyed PiS supporters agreed with Duda’s view that LGBT rights are a “dangerous ideology”.
A major factor in this is the influence of the church. Poland is one of the most Catholic nations in the world, and having established its reputation as a pro-freedom force through its close alliance with the trade union Solidarność, the Polish church has long played an active role in public life – and consecutive governments have tried their best to keep the clergy on side. The most regressive policies are also often pushed by institutions that use religion to justify their bigoted agendas, from right-wing media outlets like Radio Maryja and TV Trwam to the Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture which has been leading the campaign for a complete ban on abortion.
Moreover, PO – which does well in cities and the wealthier west of Poland but struggles to win over towns, rural areas and the east – suffers from a perception of being out of touch with the needs of ordinary people. It’s hard to convince a working-class family to vote against a homophobic candidate when the opponent is perceived as a threat to their healthcare, pensions or child benefits that help put food on the table.
What about the left? For a long time, left-wing forces have been on the margins of Polish politics. The collapse of communism and subsequent decline of the left allowed PiS to monopolise an economically interventionist agenda. The old social democratic party SLD held power on-and-off until 2005, however by the mid-2000s it lost a vast majority of its supporters after embracing Third Way neoliberalism and being implicated in high-profile corruption scandals. Today, the Polish left still struggles to talk about inequality, workers’ rights or the labour movement without sounding like a relic of a bygone era. Meanwhile, PiS successfully frames moderately redistributive policies in terms of protecting the nation, traditional families and ‘ordinary Poles’.
Despite the left alliance Lewica winning a breakthrough 12.5% of the vote in last year’s parliamentary election, their candidate Robert Biedroń finished the race in the first round, with a result of just over 2%. While outflanking Trzaskowski on LGBT and women’s rights, he failed to make jobs, public services or the climate a dividing line. As a result, most previous Lewica voters ignored Biedroń and went straight to Trzaskowski – the liberal with the biggest chance of winning.
What now? With control over both the presidency and the government, PiS can implement its plans without significant challenges. The most effective opposition is likely to come from the grassroots – and the resistance has already been building. The past two years have seen the Polish LGBT rights movement grow in strength. Pride marches have been taking place in an ever-increasing number of cities and towns and, before the pandemic, attracting more people year on year. Hundreds of schools have joined ‘Rainbow Friday’, a new annual pro-LGBT day of action, despite the government issuing a condemnation. Since the 2016 women’s strike for abortion rights, there has been a proliferation of feminist groups which frequently also lead anti-fascist mobilisations. Thousands of young people are becoming politicised through climate activism, and Black Lives Matter protests recently revived a debate about everyday racism.
At the same time, opposite forces are also mobilising. Around 100 local authorities have passed policies to declare themselves ‘LGBT-free zones’, and groups to the right of PiS have continued to organise, both on the streets and electorally (the extreme right presidential candidate Krzysztof Bosak finished in this election with a troubling 7% of the vote).
The battle for Poland’s soul rages on. Meanwhile, despite PiS’ claims of standing on the side of the poor and disadvantaged, Poland remains one of the most unequal countries in Europe, public services are still severely underfunded, millions of workers can’t count on a secure contract and the pandemic threatens to leave many thousands unemployed. Without a strong left vigorously arguing that human rights must include economic justice, building a progressive majority will remain a struggle.
Ana Oppenheim is a member of Momentum’s National Coordinating Group, organiser with the Labour Campaign for Free Movement and member of Polish left-wing party Razem.
For more information about how to support Poland’s LGBT community, click here.