Janek Skarzynski, AFP | The leader of PiS Party (Law and Justice) Jaroslaw Kaczynski speaks during a campaign convention in Warsaw on October 8, 2019 ahead of October 13 parliamentary elections in Poland. In a sermon commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising against German occupation, one of Poland ’s most powerful Catholic prelates likened gay rights activists to the Communist rulers the Soviets imposed on the country just a few years after the Nazis crushed that doomed insurrection.
“Our land is no longer afflicted by the red plague, which doesn’t mean that there isn’t a new one that wants to control our souls, hearts and minds: not Marxist, Bolshevik, but born of the same spirit – not red, but rainbow,” Marek Jedraszewski, the archbishop of Krakow (the post famously occupied by Karol Wojtyla before he became Pope John Paul II), told the congregation at St Mary’s Basilica, one of the most revered sites in Polish Catholicism, on August 2.
Later in the same month, Jedraszewski added that “the word ‘plague’ describes the cultural phenomenon that we’re dealing with extremely well”, telling a pro-government weekly that the authorities should “clearly state that this ideology is a threat to the nation and state”.
The archbishop got what he wanted. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Poland’s de facto leader and head of the ruling nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS), declared his “deep gratitude” for Jedraszewski’s defence of the “normal Polish family” against threats to the country’s “culture and freedom”, while mocking gay pride parades as “travelling theatres” in an August 16 speech.
Kaczynski then cemented this issue at the heart of the election campaign. “If the opposition forms a government, then it will be dominated by those who want a radical destruction of the moral and cultural order in our country,” he told a Catholic broadcaster in early October.
In what remains an overwhelmingly Catholic country, “PiS has tried to suggest that good Catholics can only vote for it,” explained Stanley Bill, a professor of Polish studies at Cambridge University and co-editor of the Notes from Poland blog, in an interview with FRANCE 24. At the same time, “it’s not the case that the main body of the episcopate comes out and supports PiS,” he continued, "but some sections of the Church have certainly given that impression."
‘Illiberal notions of what is normal’
The kind of claims made by Kaczynski and Jedraszewski “feature prominently in PiS rhetoric”, observed Jan Zielonka, a Poland expert and professor of politics at Oxford University, in an interview with FRANCE 24. “Before the last general elections, in 2015, the focus was on migrants – but now LGBT people have replaced them as the other ‘Other’, so to speak.”
“There is plausible deniability in the rhetoric; they’re very careful to say that they’re attacking what they call LGBT ideology as opposed to LGBT individuals – but the undertones are pretty clear,” Bill added.
Some anti-LGBT protesters have been even more forthright than Kaczynski and Jedraszewski. Riot police detained some 30 demonstrators who tried to block a gay pride rally, pelting the marchers with eggs, in the south-eastern city of Lublin on September 28. Two counter-protesters who brought homemade bombs to the parade were also arrested. Lublin’s PiS mayor had originally tried to ban the pride march, but a judicial review allowed it to proceed.
The bombs were a “worrying sign”, Bill said. “When there is a climate of sustained rhetoric against a minority group, one certainly has concerns that it will lead to violence.”
Indeed, many LGBT Poles say they are living in a climate of fear. “We’ve had death threats; [this] was about forcing us not to have this march,” Bartosz Staszewski, an organiser of the Lublin parade, told Reuters.
“I’m afraid of being humiliated in front of [my] children; I’m afraid my car will be vandalised or that someone will set fire to our flat,” said another member of the city’s LGBT community, speaking to Agence France-Presse.
PiS ‘mobilising core vote’
Yet it seems that Kacszynski’s invective against “LGBT ideology” has not harmed PiS’s popularity ahead of Sunday’s elections. The party is projected to get 44 percent of the vote, according to an aggregate of voter intention surveys by specialised website Wybory .
Law and Justice “are playing to their base with the LGBT issue, stoking fears to get socially conservative voters to go to the ballot box, because they need to maximise turnout”, Bill pointed out.
To reach out beyond this base, PiS has to “frame its social policies in a way that keeps the core vote mobilised but also makes the opposition uncomfortable”, Aleks Szczerbiak, a Poland specialist and professor of politics at the University of Sussex, told FRANCE 24. “For example, when it comes to LGBT pride parades, a lot of people who aren’t necessarily religious are offended when religious symbols are used in ways seen as profane, because a lot of them are also national symbols – you could see that when a so-called ‘black Madonna’ was held with a rainbow halo over Mary’s head earlier this year; this is a symbol with deep meaning that goes back to Poland’s seventeenth-century war with Sweden.”
“So, by focusing on things like this, PiS can present themselves as defenders of Polish identity, of which Catholicism is an important part, in a way that reaches voters beyond their socially conservative core,” Szczerbiak concluded.
Nevertheless, over the long term, Poland is slowly but steadily becoming less Catholic. During the last 10 years, the number of people attending Sunday Mass has fallen by 2.5 million. “It would seem that there is a connection between the gradual decline of the church and its increasingly anti-LGBT rhetoric," Bill argued. "A radicalisation in response to a sense of being besieged.”