- by Alexandra Yatsyk
- research article available here
On the 1st of October, Warsaw experienced the march for a “tolerant, open and European” Poland, the largest since 1989. The turnout reached close to one million people and the event took place just two weeks before the general elections, which Poland holds on 15 October, 2023. Many from the liberal opposition believe the country should make its “civilizational choice” in this “duel” with the conservative ruling party PiS (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, Law and Justice). The latter – as demonstrated by the latest opinion poll by Politico – is still in the lead position with 37% of electoral sympathies, as of October 4. Its main political opponent, the liberal Civil Coalition (Koalicja Obywatelska, KO), garners 30% of electoral support, but hopes to win the majority of seats and not without a reason.
Meanwhile, public opinion polls indicate a gradual liberalization of social attitudes towards the LGBTIQ community. A national survey held in 2022 indicated that homophobia in Poland is decreasing: 34% and 28% of respondents supported same-sex civil partnerships and same-sex marriage, respectively. In this context, the same-sex wedding performance of Robert Biedroń, MEP and the founder of the Wiesna (Spring) party, and his partner Krzysztof Śmiszek at Skrzywanek’s “Spartakus” play in Kielce on September 27, could hardly be seen as a crude trick in the battle for electoral hearts and minds. “We feel socially accepted,” says Agnieszka Graff, a Polish writer and human rights activist, when referring to her personal experience as a lesbian. She adds: “Polish society is much less homophobic than political parties assume”. Yet, in the 2023 International Lesbian and Gay Association’s Rainbow Europe ranking, Poland occupies 42nd place out of 49 countries, which is the worst-in-class among the European Union member states.
In my article for The International Spectator, I discuss the logic and strategies of “war on gender” between Poland and the EU and possible tools that the EU could apply against Polish illiberalism. The conflict between the incumbent PiS party and the European Union on the LGBTIQ issue can be framed as a clash of two biopolitical projects. The first, supported by the EU’s vision, follows democratic principles and refers to LGBTIQ rights as human rights. Instead, the second project is Poland’s perspective on the issue, accepting the EU’s paradigm of human rights but trying to establish its own Polish biopolitical vision of the LGBTIQ community. The conflict between these two projects went through four stages. At each stage, the PiS created new zones of biopolitical exclusion: normative, in a kind of ’biopolitical conservatism’; spatial, as in the case of the establishment of ‘LGBT-free zones’; and legislative, such as issuing the Charters of Family Rights and opening the court cases against the LGBTIQ community.
The ‘battle’ between Brussels and Warsaw, which resulted in the adoption of the EC-Poland Partnership Agreement 2021-2027, is a suitable demonstration of the power of the EU against illiberal backlashes. Yet, this “war” is hardly over: Polish human rights activists report that homophobic narratives are extensively employed by PiS members and their allies, including representatives of Polish municipalities that established the “LGBT-free zones” in 2019-2020.
Criticism from Brussels targeting the anti-LGBTIQ policy of PiS appears to have had no impact on the Polish ruling party’s electoral campaign, which retains such sentiments, albeit in a more nuanced manner. While waiting for the election’s result, it is safe to say that biopolitical theory is useful for understanding the far-reaching effects of illiberal populism. On 15 October, it will be clearer at which stage of its illiberal transformation Poland finds itself.