After losses for ruling Law and Justice party in local elections Robert Biedroń says Poland is “ready for progressive politics”. Pictured: Robert Biedroń casts his ballot in local elections, 21 October 2018. Photo credit: Robert Biedroń on Twitter
Poland’s first openly gay politician has said “progressives” can win in the country, as the ruling Law and Justice party suffered setbacks in local elections at the weekend.
“I don’t believe that Poland is not ready for progressive politics,” said Robert Biedroń, who stood down as mayor of Słupsk to launch a pro-European, “pro-democratic” movement. “Because if you give people a tempting, credible offer, people are willing to trust you.”
Election losses for the rightwing Law and Justice party (PiS) in big cities including Warsaw have buoyed the opposition. PiS took 32.3% of the vote in the battle for regional assemblies – better than its performance in 2014 local elections but worse than the score in 2015 that brought it into government.
Having launched his unnamed movement last month, Biedroń’s first electoral test will be European elections next May, followed by Poland’s parliamentary elections later in the year and presidential elections in 2020.
He faces an uphill struggle to turn around the fortunes of the left, which has no seats in the Sejm, the lower house of parliament.
He is seen as a contender on the national stage, after one opinion poll put him in third place for the presidency behind the incumbent, Andrzej Duda, and the former prime minister Donald Tusk, who is believed to be eyeing a return to Polish politics at the end of his stint as European council president.
Biedroń, who eschews the labels left and right, has been called “the Polish Macron” but his political manifesto is not yet complete.
Perhaps like the French president, Biedroń does not want to avoid values. He argues that the Polish left collapsed at the polls because it pursued a technocratic path that ceded questions of history, identity and belonging to PiS. He levels the same charge at the centre-right Civic Platform led by Tusk, which he contends lost touch during eight years of running Poland.
“They were building airports but they were closing small schools,” he said. “They ignored the local and that is why the populists grew up, because they said we will bring it back.”
He plans to visit 40 small towns and villages before the end of the year and argues it is a myth that these places always vote for conservative parties. “You just need to find someone credible and accountable to articulate their dreams.”
His own political trajectory, as a young, openly gay atheist and former LGBT activist who was elected to the Sejm in 2011, testifies to a modern Poland that is more nuanced than the common view of the Catholic country held by many, he argues.
When Biedroń was an MP he was beaten up in the street four or five times, but by the time he was mayor people smiled in the streets, he has previously told the BBC. While he argues that Poland is “not black and white” on social issues, he concedes that life can be very difficult for gay people without his profile. “The LGBT community was a scapegoat for many politicians,” he said.
Filip Pazderski, an analyst at the Institute of Public Affairs in Warsaw, said Biedroń had a chance to pick up votes from the one-fifth of Polish voters estimated to lean left, especially younger people sceptical of politics and those motivated by quality of life in their local area. “People are fed up with the old political actors,” Pazderski said, adding that Biedroń knew “how to talk with people and use social media”.
But the analyst thought it unlikely Biedroń could ever be prime minister without support from other parties.
For now Biedroń is allying with pro-EU forces associated with Emmanuel Macron. He said he was in talks with the French president as well as Udo Bullmann, the leader of the socialists in the European parliament.
Biedroń is seeking a radical change in Poland’s relationship with the EU, which is dominated by a bitter dispute over the rule of law. Biedroń accused past Polish governments of treating the EU like a “milk cow” whose only value was transactional.
Brussels insiders are increasingly alarmed that Poland’s populist government may instruct the supreme court to ignore the European court of justice, a move that would be seen as an attack on the foundation of the EU.
It remains unclear whether the Polish government intends to comply with a ruling issued on Friday ordering Poland to suspend a law lowering the retirement age of judges.
Many of the supreme court judges affected by the law are returning to work after Europe’s highest court said it was intervening to avoid “serious and irreparable damage to the EU” while it considered its final verdict on the matter.
Responding to the news on Friday, the prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, said only that the government would “take a position after a thorough analysis”. In August the deputy prime minister, Jarosław Gowin, said that if the ECJ ruled against the changes, the government would have no choice but to “ignore the ruling of the [court] as contrary to the Lisbon treaty and the whole spirit of European integration”.
Jennifer Rankin in Brussels and Christian Davies in Warsaw