Robert Biedroń is determined to change his country. The 42-year-old inaugurated his new centre-left Wiosna (“Spring”) Party earlier this month, which aims to unseat Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS). In Poland’s increasingly conservative political landscape, Biedroń’s positions on abortion, same-sex unions and separation of church and state are radical.
Biedroń is the first openly gay MP in Central and Eastern Europe. While serving as a member of parliament for the centre-left party Twoj Ruch (“Your Movement”) from 2011-14, he was physically attacked several times on the street for being gay. Over the four years to 2018 that he held office as mayor of Słupsk, a city in northern Poland, his sexual orientation was gradually met with greater tolerance. Today he is credited with helping to change public opinion towards the LGBT community in Poland.
“If I had to choose one thing to take with from Słupsk, it’s that atmosphere of patriotic cooperation,” Biedroń says. “We might not agree on every single issue but we are members of the same Polish community, a family that does not accept hatred and leaves no one behind.”
The incumbent Law and Justice Party, which secured a majority three years ago, infuses patriotism with Roman Catholic piety. It has reignited a historic connection between religion and nationalism in a country where 93 per cent of the population identify as Catholic.
In contrast, Biedroń, who made headlines when he refused to hang a portrait of the pope in Słupsk’s town hall, pledges to end tax exemptions for the church, nix Christian religious classes in Polish public schools, introduce same-sex civil unions, and allow abortion until 12 weeks of pregnancy.
This latter promise is particularly controversial with conservatives in Poland, where abortions are only permitted when pregnancy poses a threat to a mother’s life, when there is a serious fetal abnormality, or when a pregnancy results from rape or incest. The PiS turned against a proposal to ban abortion out-right in 2016, but has since sought new restrictions that would criminalise abortion in the case of fetal abnormalities. Access to the morning after pill requires a prescription.
Of his proposals to seperate the church from the state, Biedroń maintains that faith can be “wonderful” in the right context, but accuses Poland’s Catholic Church of widespread corruption.
“Politicians over the last 30 years tolerated and promoted policies that favoured the Catholic Church [but] that morally corrupted everybody involved,” he says, adding that “public funding worth hundreds of millions of euros, tax exemptions and large areas of land and lucrative real estate have all been given to the clergy in exchange for political support.”
“This had to end, and the support Wiosna receives for its clear message on the issue shows that we are seeing the beginning of a fair deal regulating the role of the church in our society,” he adds.
Despite Poland’s entrenched social conservatism, recent polls have identified Biedroń as a serious political contender who could challenge established parties and draw major support away from the main centre-right opposition party, Civic Platform (PO), in autumn parliamentary elections. Wiosna is currently polling in third place with around 16 per cent support, approximately 5 per cent behind PO.
“Up to one-third of popular support for me as a mayor of Słupsk came from people who voted for PiS in the national elections. Now, Wiosna is, according to some polls, a second-choice party for almost 20 per cent of them”, he says.
But detractors worry that his ascendancy could split the left and hand an easy victory to the PiS. Poland allocates electoral seats using the D’Hondt method, a version of proportional representation that favours larger, unified opposition parties.
Yet Biedroń remains optimistic in the face of opposition. “When you think of it, why wouldn’t a PiS voter switch to Wiosna?,” he asks. “We are strong on empowering and strengthening smaller cities and local communities; we want to provide Poles with [the] welfare they so rightfully deserve, and we care about the environment.”
His central pitch is that Poland, despite its socially conservative reputation, is more liberal than people might think.
“Polish society is significantly more… progressive than our politics.”
Paul Brian is a freelance journalist in Eastern Europe and contributor to the BBC, Al Jazeera and Foreign Policy.