Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, has attempted to move away from homophobic rhetoric in recent days after attacks on “LGBT ideology” during his re-election campaign drew widespread criticism.
Duda, who will travel to the White House next week aiming to receive a pre-election boost from Donald Trump just four days before the vote, made a campaign pledge to “defend children from LGBT ideology”, which he has claimed could be “even more destructive” than communist ideology.
In the most homophobic outburst so far, Przemysław Czarnek, an MP from the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party and member of Duda’s campaign team, said during a televised debate on the issue: “Let’s stop listening to these idiocies about human rights. These people are not equal with normal people.”
On Wednesday, Duda received the LGBT activist Bart Staszewski at Warsaw’s presidential palace in an apparent attempt to portray a more progressive side. Staszewski said that during the hour-long meeting, he presented Duda with a set of photographs of LGBT teenagers who had killed themselves in Poland in recent years.
“I told him that these kids were people, not an ideology, and they committed suicide because others believed they represented some kind of ideology. But he seemed not to feel anything, and did not apologise for anything,” said Staszewski, who refused to shake Duda’s hand at the end of the meeting.
“I told him I hope he will see these kids in his nightmares,” he said.
PiS has combined rightwing conservatism with wide-ranging social spending programmes, but the coronavirus-induced economic downturn has made campaigning on economic issues harder, leading to the increased rhetoric on “family values”.
On Sunday, Duda tweeted in English to accuse a number of media outlets, including the Guardian, of spreading “fake news” about his views on LGBT issues. He did not clarify which reports he believed were false or taken out of context.
Radosław Fogiel, a PiS MP, claimed it was opposition politicians who had first raised the issue of LGBT rights, but conceded that Duda was distancing himself from some of the more extreme rhetoric. “It won’t disappear, but you can see that Duda is trying to calm some things down, because he doesn’t want the campaign to tear us apart as a nation,” he said.
The election was originally scheduled for May, when Duda was riding high in the polls, but was postponed to 28 June because of the coronavirus pandemic. Rafał Trzaskowski, the liberal mayor of Warsaw, entered the race late and is now Duda’s main challenger. A poll this week suggested they would proceed to a second round of voting, with a potential run-off between the two candidates currently too close to call.
Trzaskowski, a slick campaigner who speaks multiple languages, has gained momentum since entering the race last month, but is struggling to shake off a reputation as a condescending member of the metropolitan elite and broaden his appeal in the provinces.
“Of course he’s talented, and he’s a fully European intellectual, but that’s not necessarily a recommendation in the elections,” said Adam Michnik, the veteran editor of liberal newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, which has supported Trzaskowski’s candidacy.
Government-linked media outlets have attacked Trzaskowski both on his record over LGBT rights and with smears that he represents sinister foreign interests. A source in Trzaskowski’s campaign said it was possible that Duda had gone overboard in the eyes of the public with his attacks on LGBT ideology. “The more they push it, the closer they are to the edge and the more chance they will burn,” he said.
However, large swaths of Poland remain deeply conservative, and Trzaskowski has tried hard to avoid firm declarations of support for LGBT rights during the campaign. In the city of Wrocław on Sunday, he addressed a crowd of a few thousand supporters gathered on the main square; he spoke about human rights, women’s rights and the rights of children with disabilities, but did not directly address LGBT rights.
During a televised debate on Wednesday involving the 11 presidential candidates, all of them male, Trzaskowski said he supported civil partnerships for same-sex couples but then swiftly changed the subject. He declined an interview request from the Guardian.
The source in Trzaskowski’s team said that, if elected, he would only be willing to work with PiS if they acceded to certain key demands, such as reforming the state television network, which currently functions as a government mouthpiece. The president cannot introduce legislation but has a blocking function, meaning if Trzaskowski wins, he could frustrate much of the PiS legislative agenda.
Duda’s campaign team believes the final result could be within one or two percentage points, and are hoping that the surprise intervention by Trump could provide a decisive boost. Poles across the political spectrum are strong supporters of the US and Nato, and an announcement during the White House visit about an increased US troop presence in Poland would be a major boost for Duda on the eve of the vote.