WARSAW — Poland’s economy is in free fall, unemployment is rising and the country has one of the EU’s highest rates of new coronavirus infections … which is why the presidential election campaign is focused on LGBTQ rights.
Andrzej Duda, the incumbent president, launched an attack on gay rights advocates in a fiery weekend speech that compared it to the communist ideology imposed on Poland by the Soviet Union.
“The generation of my parents didn’t battle for 40 years to throw communist ideology out of schools, so that it couldn’t be imposed on children … for us to agree to a different ideology, and one even more dangerous to people. An ideology that hides deep intolerance under phrases of respect and tolerance,” Duda said during a Saturday campaign stop in Brzeg in Southwestern Poland.
Duda insisted that he’s not personally opposed to gay people, “They have their preferences and that’s that,” but that LGBTQ “ideology” is something different.
The president’s comments were widely reported outside Poland, and he reacted Sunday by tweeting in English: “Yet again, as part of dirty political fight, my words are put out of context. I truly believe in diversity and equality.” He called the reports “fake news,” but did not say how his remarks had been misreported.
Duda’s attack is part of a broader strategy aimed at arresting his slide in opinion polls thanks to the entry of liberal Warsaw Mayor Rafał Trzaskowski into the presidential race; the first round of the election is set for June 28.
Although polls show Duda is still ahead — a survey out this weekend had him at 41 percent compared with Trzaskowski’s 28 percent — he’s lost ground in recent weeks. The election was supposed to take place on May 10, and polls then showed Duda with enough support to win in the first round. However, that vote was delayed because of the pandemic and because the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party botched an attempt to turn it into a postal-only election.
Now some polls show that Duda could lose to Trzaskowski in a second-round vote, which will be held on July 12 if no candidate wins an outright majority on June 28.
The politics of attacking gays
That would be a disaster for PiS and its effort to dramatically reshape Polish society and institutions according to its nationalist vision. The party doesn’t have enough votes in parliament to override a presidential veto, so has swung its full weight behind Duda.
“The reelection of Andrzej Duda as president lies in the elementary interests of Poland,” Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of PiS and Poland’s de facto ruler, wrote in a letter to party members earlier this month, adding that a Trzaskowski victory would mean a “heavy political, social and moral crisis” for the country.
Law and Justice surged to power in 2015 thanks to generous social promises, a pledge to restore patriotism and national values and well as tight bonds to the powerful Roman Catholic Church. That was all leavened with a heavy dose of scare tactics, warning that Poland was in danger of being subsumed under a wave of Muslim migrants.
The party successfully exploited voters’ fears over homosexuality to its electoral advantage during last year’s national and European elections.
But this year the pandemic, plus a growing number of corruption scandals linked to the government’s coronavirus response, threatened to derail the party’s efforts to hang on to power. That may be why it is returning to LGBTQ attacks in a bid to boost support from its traditional electorate and persuade wavering voters to stick with PiS.
Last week Duda signed a “family values” charter that vows to protect children from LGBTQ ideology and to never allow gay marriage — something that Poland’s constitution already forbids.
There’s fertile ground for such a strategy. Poland was ranked as the most anti-gay country in the EU by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association.
As Warsaw mayor, Trzaskowski backed the idea of sex education in schools, signed a declaration supporting LGBTQ people and has said “clearly and strongly” that he backs the idea of civil partnerships for same-sex couples, although he’s shied away from supporting gay marriage.
Duda’s effort is being echoed by other party members.
Przemysław Czarnek, an MP and a member of Duda’s campaign team, said during a Saturday TV interview that he’d seen gay people parading in Los Angeles and that, “These people aren’t equal to normal people.”
“Let’s defend families against this time of rot, depravation, completely immoral behavior. Let’s defend against LGBT ideology and let’s stop listening to this nonsense about some sort of human rights and some sort of equality,” he said.
Another PiS MP recently compared allowing gay marriage to zoophilia.
For now, the effort to divert attention from other issues hasn’t slowed Duda’s steady fall in opinion polls. However, Polish media — and especially state television which openly backs Duda — now talk of little beyond gay rights.
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This article has been updated with Duda’s reaction.