Opinion

How will the LGBT issue play out in Poland’s European Parliament election?

While Poles appear to be increasingly tolerant of LGBT lifestyles, beyond the larger towns and cities the country remains culturally conservative and acceptance declines when the agenda moves into the realm of sex education and family life. Although a risky strategy, raising the salience of this controversial issue draws out divisions within the opposition and could mobilise the right-wing ruling party’s small-town and rural core supporters in a European Parliament election where turnout will be key.

Mobilising conservative voters

In February, Warsaw mayor Rafał Trzaskowski published a 12-point charter pledging support for the city’s LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community. Mr Trzaskowski was elected last October as the candidate of the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s ruling party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping. Most controversially, the ‘LGBT plus’ rights declaration included a proposal to introduce a comprehensive, LGBT-approved sex and anti-discrimination education programme based on World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines into the city’s schools. The programme starts at an early age and is intended to teach children about all aspects of sexuality and sexual behaviour. The charter was one of Mr Trzaskowski’s election pledges but commentators suggested that the decision to prioritise it as one of his first high profile policy initiatives was a manoeuvre to counter the electoral challenge to Civic Platform from the new liberal-left Spring (Wiosna) party. Formed in February by veteran LGBT activist Robert Biedroń, Spring has made moral-cultural issues a centre-piece of its political appeal, clearly targeting urban social liberals.

However, Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Poland’s ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, zeroed in on the charter as a chance to make the LGBT issue one of the key divisions in the current European Parliament (EP) election campaign. The next few months are crucial for Polish politics as the country gears up for EP elections in May followed by an autumn parliamentary poll that could be the most important and consequential since the collapse of communism in 1989. Mr Kaczyński – who, although he does not hold any formal state positions, exercises a powerful behind-the-scenes influence in determining Law and Justice’s programmatic and strategic priorities – vowed to put the ruling party at the head of a moral crusade to promote traditional values and defend Polish families and children against what he argued were threats to the country’s culture and national identity from the LGBT lobby and left-wing enemies of Western civilisation. He particularly condemned the proposed new sex education policies as, as he saw it, seeking to use state-appointed specialists to impose an ideology affirmed by a narrow social group that: undermined the traditional role of the family and rights of parents to bring up their children according to their own values; and promoted the premature sexualisation of children.

Law and Justice also seized upon remarks by Paweł Rabiej – Mr Trzaskowski’s deputy, who is in a same-sex relationship – suggesting that the LGBT’s lobby’s call for legal recognition of civil partnerships was simply a precursor leading to further demands to change the definition of the marriage (set out in the Polish Constitution as the union of a man and woman) and grant adoption rights to same-sex couples. The party argued that the LGBT lobby and its supporters were a powerful and brutal group who were not simply fighting for tolerance, dignity and respect but wanted affirmation and special privileges for same-sex unions that undermined institutions such as traditional marriage which, they said, stabilised the social order and promoted the common good of society.

In fact, Law and Justice voters’ views on moral-cultural issues are not monolithic and often more socially liberal than the party leadership; like most Poles, they see this as an area where political parties and the state should not become directly involved. Consequently, Mr Kaczyński’s party has been extremely wary of giving such issues too high a profile for fear of putting off more ‘centrist’ voters who might otherwise be attracted to support Law and Justice’s socio-economic programme. Nonetheless, pressing the party’s message on the LGBT issue strengthens its hold over conservative voters, thereby neutralising attempts to develop an electoral challenge to Law and Justice on the radical right by groupings such as the new Confederation (Konfederacja) electoral alliance. It also helps to mobilise the party’s supporters in smaller towns and rural areas where conservative cultural values still hold considerable sway, in a context where EP election turnout is traditionally very low overall (only 24 per cent in 2014) but higher in larger towns and cities where the liberal-centrist opposition enjoys greater support. A February survey conducted for the CBOS polling agency, for example, found that only 68 per cent of Law and Justice voters said that they would vote in this election compared with 78 per cent of Civic Platform supporters.

Moreover, the Polish Catholic Church – which, although it is not as influential as it once was, remains an important civil society actor, particularly in Law and Justice’s electoral heartlands where levels of religiosity are still high – also criticised the Warsaw LGBT charter. This is important because, although Law and Justice says that its programme is inspired by Christian values, the ruling party has not enjoyed the closest of relationships with the church hierarchy in recent years.

A problematic issue for the opposition

Mr Trzaskowski and the liberal-centrist opposition responded by accusing Law and Justice of distorting the charter’s contents, insisting that parental consent would be required for participation in sex education lessons and that these would simply involve conversations about tolerance and keeping children safe. They denied that the LGBT community was a threat to the family and Polish traditions, arguing that the Warsaw charter represented a commitment to defending minority rights and opposing discrimination and manifestations of hate. This, they said, was all part of Poland becoming a modern, open and diverse European society that respected the rights of all of its citizens. Law and Justice was, they claimed, trying to use the LGBT issue cynically to distract voters’ attention away from recent allegations of questionable business dealings levelled against Mr Kaczyński (which Law and Justice vehemently denies). It was, they argued, simply a pretext to create an atmosphere of moral panic against liberals who supposedly wanted to deprave Polish children, and thereby mobilise its core supporters, in the same way that they had stoked fears about Muslim migration from the Middle East and North Africa in the run-up to the 2015 parliamentary election

Nonetheless, the way in which the LGBT issue has been framed in the EP campaign is very problematic for the Civic Platform-led European Coalition (KE), an extremely diverse anti-Law and Justice electoral alliance comprising most of Poland’s opposition parties and formed specifically to contest this election. The Coalition’s strategy has been to avoid divisive ideological issues – or, indeed, any specific programmatic commitments. In an attempt to pivot to the centre, some of its leaders – who are broadly sympathetic to the Warsaw charter, and even the LGBT lobby’s more radical demands on marriage and adoption rights for same-sex couples – have criticised the timing of its launch. Even Mr Trzaskowski distanced himself from his deputy’s comments, sensing that they allowed Law and Justice to frame the LGBT debate in a very unfavourable way for the cultural left.

During its most successful period, Civic Platform was always an ideologically eclectic and electorally heterogeneous grouping, and the party’s leadership avoided taking unambiguous stances on LGBT and other controversial moral-cultural issues such as abortion, expect when they were sure that public opinion was overwhelmingly on their side. For sure, in recent years Civic Platform’s conservative wing has become much less influential, and the party’s stance increasingly socially liberal, which has played well in the larger towns and cities that form the core of its electoral base. Nonetheless, Civic Platform cannot completely ignore its more traditionalist conservative-centrist supporters and it remains wary of taking too radical a left-wing stance on moral-cultural issues; its leader Grzegorz Schetyna has talked about the party having a ‘conservative anchor’. The prominence of the LGBT issue is also a particular problem for the agrarian-centrist Polish Peasant Party (PSL), another key European Coalition member, because it raises serious doubts among its socially conservative small-town and rural electoral base as to whether they really want to support such an apparently overtly liberal electoral alliance.

For sure, opinion surveys appear to show that Poles have become increasingly tolerant towards LGBT lifestyles in recent years. For example, a November 2017 CBOS survey found that the number of respondents who felt that homosexuality should not be tolerated fell from 41 per cent in April 2001 to only 24 per cent, while the number who said that it was something normal increased from five per cent to 16 per cent over the same period. Although conservative politicians and commentators warn of a ratchet effect, to many Poles legal recognition of same-sex civil partnerships does not appear to be a particular threat to them in their everyday lives. The LGBT lobby cite a February IPSOS poll published by the OKO.press portal, showing that a majority (56 per cent) support such unions, as a key piece of evidence of apparent value change in Polish society (although other polls show less support, partly depending on how the question is phrased).

Nonetheless, beyond the larger towns and cities Poland remains a culturally conservative country and tolerance of LGBT lifestyles is certainly not unconditional. For example, the same November 2017 CBOS survey found that a majority (55 per cent) of Poles still felt still that, although homosexuality could be tolerated, it was not something normal. Substantial majorities of Poles remain opposed to same-sex marriage and they are overwhelmingly against adoption of children by same-sex couples. A lot depends on how the debate is framed and popular acceptance starts to decline when the LGBT agenda moves beyond how individuals choose to live their private lives and into areas which Poles feel belong to the realm of the family. This is exemplified by attitudes towards the particularly sensitive topic of sex education in schools, where most Poles are hostile to proposals felt to clash with traditional moral codes or seen to be promoting an approach to the subject or version of sexual relations that many parents do not approve of. For example, a March IBRiS poll for the ‘Super Express’ newspaper found that 64 per cent of respondents felt that parents and families should be the primary educators of children in matters of sexual education (30 per cent disagreed).

Turnout will be key

Poland’s EP election campaign is very evenly matched with opinion polls showing Law and Justice and the European Coalition running neck-and-neck, so apparently relatively minor events or issues could determine the final outcome. Turnout will be crucial and, although this is likely to be higher than usual, it will still be the most loyal and committed party supporters who vote, so mobilising these core electorates remains the key to victory. Although Law and Justice planned to make its main campaign theme a generous package of new social welfare spending promises and tax cuts, the Warsaw charter and Mr Rabiej’s comments created an opportunity for the ruling party to bring the LGBT issue to fore. It is certainly a polarising issue that strikes an emotional chord with many Poles because it involves a clash of basic moral-cultural values and thus maps on to some of the deepest divisions in Polish society. For sure, raising the salience of this very controversial issue certainly carries risks for Law and Justice and could prove to be a double-edged sword. By increasing the polarisation of the political scene in this way, Law and Justice could up strengthening the resolve of its urban liberal opponents to turn out and vote. However, if, in the process, it mobilises even more of the ruling party’s core supporters in small-town and rural areas, where EP election turnout is traditionally low, it could be worth the risk.

The views expressed in this opinion editorial are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Emerging Europe’s editorial policy. 

About the author

Aleks Szczerbiak

Aleks Szczerbiak

Aleks Szczerbiak is Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies, University of Sussex.

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