Rare is the election campaign that truly hinges on a single issue. But in the run-up to Sunday’s presidential election in Poland, “LGBT”—an English acronym that sounds strange and foreign in Polish—was unquestionably the dominant theme. The coronavirus pandemic is still ravaging the world, an economic crisis looms, and international politics are in turmoil. Yet when the Polish president, Andrzej Duda, declared that “LGBT are not people; they are an ideology”—and for that matter an ideology “even more destructive” than communism—the statement instantly became the most widely discussed moment of the campaign.
Duda has now been reelected, narrowly defeating Rafał Trzaskowski, who, as the mayor of Warsaw, signed a vague promise to provide greater support to the city’s gay community, including offering some anti-discrimination and anti-bullying education in schools. Duda and the ruling party, Law and Justice, said the mayor’s gesture amounted to the “sexualization of children” and the destruction of the family.
The president’s comments were then echoed and amplified by an anti-LGBTQ campaign on what used to be public television and is now ruling-party-controlled state television, paid for with taxpayers’ money. In parts of the country, state television is the only TV available, or the only TV many people can afford. In the last week of the campaign, state television ran items speculating on whether Trzaskowski would force LGBTQ education on all children, whether he would replace independence-day parades with gay-pride parades, whether Duda should push for a clause in the constitution banning gay marriage.
I am sorry to say that these conversations were also echoed by a large part of the Catholic Church hierarchy, from parish priests who put Duda’s election posters outside their churches to the archbishop of Krakow—one of Pope John Paul II’s successors in that job—who has spoken of homosexuals as “the rainbow plague.” This rhetoric is not dog whistling, as American political commentators like to say: This is open demonization, an all-out culture war.
Both Duda and state television played some other ugly games in the final weeks of the campaign, delivering a shout-out to anti-vaccination fanatics and accusing Trzaskowski of serving German and “Jewish” interests (one chyron on state TV read: “Will Trzaskowski Fulfill Jewish Demands?”). My husband, who is Polish and a member of the European Parliament for Trzaskowski’s party, campaigned on the Warsaw mayor’s behalf. Several times, voters told him they wouldn’t take his leaflets, because if he opposed the government then he must be German. “But I don’t even speak German,” he responded, in Polish. It didn’t seem to matter. At the end of the campaign, the Law and Justice leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, declared that Trzaskowski did not have a “Polish heart” or a “Polish soul.”
Poland is an ethnically homogeneous country, monolingual and overwhelmingly Catholic. Nevertheless, Law and Justice propagandists have, over the past decade, successfully manufactured, cultivated, and promoted a tribal division that is every bit as powerful as those that are based on skin color or language. While neither Germanophobia nor anti-Semitism was part of mainstream politics before Law and Justice took over the government in 2015, both sentiments have historical precedent. But suspicion of LGBTQ people is a brand-new political issue in Poland. The fear of the “rainbow plague” has been created from scratch, ginned up by cynical propagandists who know perfectly well how nasty it is. Now that Duda has won, they will tone it down, even pivot away. At an election-night celebration, Kinga Duda, the president’s daughter, made a speech that already seemed designed to alleviate the anger and ill will created by her father’s campaign. Much in the way that Ivanka Trump is sometimes used to soften her father’s image, the younger Duda earnestly expressed the wish that “no one in our country should be afraid to leave home,” regardless of “what we believe, what color skin we have, what views we have, what candidate we support, and who we love.”
This was pure spin, but it’s true that Duda will not spend the next five years of his presidency beating up gay people (though of course some of his supporters might, albeit unofficially). Instead, the members of his party will turn to the things that really interest them, which have nothing to do with “family values” at all. Their first priority, as some declared on election night, is to take control of the independent media, which is still large, encompassing one major independent television station as well as several newspaper groups and websites. Some of these have foreign ownership, or partial foreign ownership, which helps explain why they have remained free of government influence until now. Whereas Polish businessmen linked to opposition politics or the independent media are subject to various kinds of harassment—tax inspections, fake corruption investigations—foreigners are harder to control. Now the ruling party plans to use their “foreignness” as an excuse to force them to sell. That’s why they speak of “Polonization” of the media rather than “nationalization,” though of course they amount to the same thing. A draft law has already been prepared.
Unhindered by the threat of a presidential veto, the government will also seek to finish the job of packing and politicizing the Polish courts. Independent judges in Poland are harassed just like businessmen: interrogated, threatened, and, in one famous incident, bullied online by professional trolls, working on behalf of the Justice Ministry. Already, Poland has rival courts that don’t recognize one another, a fact that has created conflict with the rest of the European Union, which cannot function without the rule of law in its member states.
The endgame is no secret. The Polish ruling party dislikes existing entrepreneurs because it hopes to create its own oligarchs—businessmen who are dependent on government favors, a group that did not exist in Poland before now. It wants to control the media because it hopes to marginalize and eventually eliminate the political opposition, or at least to build a system in which the opposition can never win a national election. It wants to reduce the power of mayors and other local leaders, constrain civil society and control universities, and make sure that alternative voices are silenced.
The question is whether they can fulfill all of these plans with 49 percent of voters and the majority of people under age 50 dead set against them. This was an angry campaign, and some of the people who lost will remain angry. The government will have to keep the culture war going in order to drown them out. Is it possible to take control of a country by maintaining that half the nation are “real” Poles and the other half are not? Maybe it isn’t, but a lot of damage can be done along the way.