Despite a Close Election, Polish Progressives are Not Optimistic About the Future

Young activists say the country is as divided as ever, and that they fear the further erosion of LGBTQ rights.
July 14, 2020, 11:59am
Rafal Trzaskowski​ addresses a crowd
Presidential candidate Rafal Trzaskowski addresses a crowd following the results of the exit polls. Photo: Omar Marques / Getty Images

Over the weekend, Poland re-elected the controversial conservative politician Andrzej Duda as president for a second five-year term. On the campaign trail in June, Duda made headlines for likening what he terms LGBTQ "ideology" to the harms of communism. This came after the establishment of "LGBTQ-free zones" throughout Poland, where any mention of gay rights was discouraged – a policy that was widely condemned both within the country and internationally.

Duda beat rival Rafał Trzaskowski by a narrow margin of just over 51 percent of the vote. Although close, the outcome is still a blow to those concerned with growing threats to equality and civil rights. For them, the progressive Trzaskowski – who is the current mayor of Warsaw – represents a much-desired break from the right-wing Catholic orthodoxy of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), with whom Duda is aligned.

"I wasn’t massively excited about Trzaskowski, but I was excited about ending the Law and Justice [party’s] monopoly on power," activist Ana Oppenheim tells me. "Having both the government and the presidency basically allows them to do whatever they want to attack LGBTQ rights, women's rights, the constitution, civil liberties and so on. I think having a president from a different political party would stop the worst excesses of the government."

The 25-year-old from Warsaw had been monitoring the exit polls on Sunday night, optimistic that the tight margin between the two candidates would produce a win for Trzaskowski. "I was still hoping I’d wake up to a very different result. I woke up, checked my phone, saw Duda winning and yeah, I just feel really sad, to be honest. All my friends are quite devastated by this."

In recent years, Poland's conservative government, with Duda as president, has sought to limit personal and civil liberties on numerous fronts. Among these are the attempt to further restrict abortion access under what is, by international standards, an already draconian regime, and the introduction of reforms which threaten the independence of the judiciary.

Since 2013, press freedom in the country has plummeted, a development Reporters Without Borders describes as "[t]he government’s drive to subjugate the judicial system and a growing tendency to criminalise defamation."

Given all this, Oppenheim is fearful of what the election results will bring. "I'm scared," she explains. "I'm especially worried for my LGBTQ friends after the horrible campaign Duda has run that was completely dehumanising and demonising for LGBTQ people. I know a lot of people are deeply hurt. I feel emotionally affected by this, and I know a lot of people are scared about their safety."

Rémy Bonny, 25, is a political scientist and activist who researches LGBTQI movements in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and has spent time living in Poland. He suggests existing tensions in the country are set to be heightened by Duda's win.

"Poland has a really conservative political elite and a very, very strong religious countryside, but in general the bigger cities – like Warsaw, Krakow, Gdansk and Poznań – actually look very like Western cities," Bonny says. "Even when it comes to the LGBTQI nightlife scene, for instance, they have a very vibrant scene there. There is just a very, very big divide between the countryside, the smaller villages and the big cities and towns. I always saw the possibility of change happening in Poland, [but] there was just no real opposition leader who was charismatic enough. That changed with Rafał Trzaskowski."

Early data from the election indicates that the more progressive Trzaskowski proved hugely popular with young voters. "Poland, after this election, is a very, very divided country," Bonny adds. "It's divided between young and old, divided between countryside and city, divided by the gap between the higher educated and the lower. The divide was always there, but the polarisation has grown stronger."

On the question of what the future holds, Bonny does not pull any punches: “I’m going to be honest – I’m fearful of the current president and the Law and Justice government who support him. It doesn’t matter [how little] they won by, the only thing that matters to them is that they won.

“The only thing they want to establish is a more autocratic, less democratic state, like what Viktor Orbán has been doing in Hungary, and to some extent what Vladimir Putin has been doing in Russia for 15 years. That’s the kind of people they are looking to for their state model."

Bonny’s concerns are echoed by David Dyksy, a 21-year-old Polish-Irish student and pro-democracy activist. "I'm scared and anxious," he says. Among his fears about Duda’s re-election is its potential impact on the spread of misinformation and further restrictions by the government on independent media.

"They've instilled this fear in Polish people of the independent press, because it doesn't portray the government as they wish," he says, pointing out that many Polish people only have access to state-run media, which can be notoriously biased. Last October, the New York Times reported that surveys of populations in rural Poland indicated that "some 50 percent of residents get their news solely from the national broadcaster".

"That's all they're seeing," says Dyksy. "They're being constantly told this propaganda, and it instills this fear and incites this hatred. My own grandparents, when I was texting them about the election, they were telling me that LGBTQ are not people, that it’s an ideology, which is exactly what the president himself said. Their own grandson wasn’t able to convince them that no, I’m not an ideology, I’m a person.

"The government has so much power, and it has monopolised the information that people have access to, so it's extremely difficult to inform people of what reality is."

While Duda’s re-election is disheartening for many, Oppenheim believes there is some cause for hope: "I am definitely expecting a massive fightback in the same way as in 2016, when abortion rights were under attack, women mobilised probably the biggest ever women's movement in Poland. I think now we will see a huge LGBTQ rights movement. We will have to stand in solidarity with each other."