Poland's Populist Government Targets LGBT Community Ahead of Elections

The far-right populist government has manufactured a new enemy: the LGBT community. But as polls show increasing support for same-sex couples, will the government's scapegoating translate into success at the ballot box?

Earlier this year, Rafał Trzaskowski, the mayor of Warsaw, issued a 12-point declaration promising to improve the security, education, culture, sport, administration and employment of his city’s LGBT community.

The declaration was seen by many as much-needed progress towards protecting a group long persecuted in the ultra-Catholic country. Estimates say nearly 70% of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Poland have experienced some form of violence over the last two years.

Notably, it’s also the first official document in Polish history to recognize the rights of LGBT people.

The government takes aim

But this sort of history making has not been warmly welcomed by others in the country. The far-right populist government has seized on it, making the LGBT community the centerpiece of its campaign ahead of two elections this year: EU elections in May and national elections in the fall.

There’s nothing particularly novel about the government’s campaign strategy. The ruling Law and Justice Party, led by Jarosław Kaczyński, returned to power in 2015 using a campaign that promised to protect the country from the imaginary threats posed by Muslim refugees.

It worked, as it has elsewhere in Europe, especially Hungary. But migration to the EU continues to fall, and politics is very much a ‘what have you done for me lately?’ business.

So Kaczyński needed to manufacture a new threat to Polish people, and he found it in the LGBT community. In March, shortly after the release of the LGBT declaration, Kaczyński told supporters, "It comes down to, as we know today, sexualization of children from the earliest childhood. We need to fight this. We need to defend the Polish family. We need to defend it furiously because it’s a threat to civilization, not just for Poland but for the entire Europe, for the entire civilization that is based on Christianity."

His acolytes, both from his party and the Church, have kept up his message. Elzbieta Kruk, an MEP candidate from the Law and Justice Party, said she hopes that soon "Poland will be a region free from LGBT." And a well-known Catholic priest in the country said during a recent radio interview that the plus in "LGBT+" stood for "pedophiles, zoophiles, necrophiles."

And at the end of last month, during a lecture on patriotism, Kaczyński called homosexuality a "foreign import" and said that everyone in the LGBT community must learn to "accept Christianity." (Freedom of religion is protected under the Polish Constitution.)

Is a brighter future on the horizon?

The saying power of anti-LGBT politics in Poland is unclear. Support for same-sex couples is on the rise in the country, and an Ipsos poll for the news outlet OKO.Press, conducted earlier this year, found that 56 percent of Polish people do not oppose civil partnerships, up four percent from just two years ago (after Law and Justice's return to power).

Indeed, Mayor Trzaskowski doesn't believe the government's attacks on gay people will prove to be as effective as the campaign against migrants. "The majority of the Polish people will not buy the idea that homosexuals endanger our culture or values," he told The New York Times earlier this year.

There are also more visible signs of progress. Robert Biedron, an openly gay politician, has formed a new liberal party that has received strong support. And more and more cities are holding LGBT pride parades, despite the often violent counter-protests.

Will the government’s campaign translate into success at the ballot box in May and later in the year? Polls do continue to show a slim but consistent lead for Law and Justice. But with support for same-sex couples ticking up, there is reason to voters will reject the government’s campaign of fearmongering and scapegoating.