By Daniel Tilles
Robert Biedroń does not fit the typical profile of a successful politician in Poland. He is secular, liberal and gay in a country that is among the most religious, conservative and homophobic in the European Union. Yet the 39-year-old is carving out a reputation as one of the country’s rising political stars, and his success – as well as its possible limitations – says much about Poland and the ways in which it is (and isn’t) changing.
As well as being an unlikely figure in himself, Biedroń has also taken an unusual route to prominence. Following an early career as a journalist and LGBT activist, Biedroń made an abortive attempt to enter national politics with the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). Standing as a candidate in Warsaw in the 2005 parliamentary election, he received a meagre tally of votes, after the party placed him low on their electoral list. Six years later, however, competing in the northern Gdynia district, this time in first position on the ticket of the liberal Palikot’s Movement, he won election, becoming Poland’s first openly gay member of parliament.
Yet before even completing his first term, Biedroń made the curious decision to stand for the mayoralty of Słupsk, a medium-sized coastal town within his parliamentary constituency (and one with which Biedroń, who is from the opposite end of the country, had no personal connection). Standing as an independent candidate, he finished second in the first round of voting, before overcoming his opponent, from Poland’s ruling Civic Platform (PO), to win the run-off contest.
Moving from the national parliament to the mayoralty of a provincial town with a population of just 94,000 (the 40th largest in Poland) may not appear an ideal career path. It is the equivalent of a British MP quitting to become mayor of Swindon, or a first-term US senator for Nebraska deciding she’d prefer City Hall in Omaha. Moreover, Słupsk’s financial and legal situation made it a far-from-attractive proposition. Already 300m zloty (€72m) in debt, a recent court ruling on the collapse of a project to build a waterpark left the city with a bill of 24m zloty to pay contractors.
A social-media mayor
Yet Biedroń’s seemingly eccentric job switch has only served to heighten his prominence and popularity at the national level. To use a crude but instructive measure, Biedroń’s public Facebook page currently has almost 150,000 “likes”. This is significantly more than the combined total of the current prime minister, Ewa Kopacz (10,000), her predecessor and current President of the European Council, Donald Tusk (26,000), and the outgoing Speaker of Parliament, Radek Sikorski (60,000), who is known for his social-media savvy.
Winning friends on Facebook is of course very different to getting votes at the ballot box, but the fact that a provincial mayor can garner such a high public profile suggests a substantial potential national base of support. Moreover, Biedroń has received a great deal of attention in more traditional media too – so much, in fact, that he recently complained (perhaps disingenuously) that his actions receive far more scrutiny than do those of the mayors of other Polish cities. Prime Minister Kopacz this week began touring the country in what promises to be an excruciatingly long campaign for autumn’s parliamentary elections, and her first stop was Słupsk, where she met with Biedroń to discuss the city’s financial situation. There has even been talk of Biedroń as a potential presidential candidate in five years’ time.
At the moment, Biedroń’s popularity is based largely on his personal profile and political style, rather than any substantive achievements. Many of the policies for which he has received attention since arriving in Słupsk reflect the limitations of a small-town mayoralty: introducing healthier food at schools and other municipal institutions; banning circuses on animal-welfare grounds; ordering city officials to drink tap water instead of the expensive bottled variety. (Though it should be noted that the latter is no mean feat in a country with a deeply ingrained prejudice against drinking tap water – despite it being perfectly safe to do so – seemingly rooted in a historical distrust of the authorities.) It is not quite the revolution in municipal self-government that Biedroń has promised – though admittedly he is only seven months into his mandate.
Yet Biedroń’s successes, however trivial, do hint at some of the reasons behind his growing popularity. Many of his early actions indicate a willingness to tackle the common Polish irritants of wasteful government spending, inadequate services and unnecessary bureaucracy. They also point to a politician who is principled but pragmatic, who has ideas but is not dogmatically ideological. Even the very triviality of his achievements may be to his advantage, suggesting a concern with improving the day-to-day running of the city rather than pursuing the kind of grand vanity projects that are beloved of many a local politician but of questionable value to their constituents (Słupsk’s abandoned waterpark being a prime example).
There is particular demand in Poland at the moment for politicians who are seen to be able to get things done. PO, after eight years in power, seem to be running out of impetus and ideas; the main opposition, Law and Justice (PiS), have often appeared more interested in sniping at the government, propagating conspiracy theories and stoking Poland’s culture wars than in practical issues of governance.
On a personal level, Biedroń has also created an image of humility, approachability and willingness to engage directly with his constituents (and, via social media, with those outside Słupsk too) – qualities that are all too rare among Polish politicians. He eschews his official limousine in favour of riding to work by bike, has personally conducted weddings in city hall (while expressing the hope that it will one day be legal for him to marry his own partner of 12 years), and joined the revelry at Słupsk’s annual student festival (see picture). While clearly an effective self-publicist, he comes across as genuinely devoted to public service.
This, again, is appealing to politically disillusioned Poles, desperate for leaders who are relatable and visibly interested in serving their constituents. The primary cause of President Komorowski’s shock defeat last month – after seeing a 40-point lead in the polls evaporate – was not his policies or ideology, but his wooden personality and a lack of interest in campaigning that seemed complacent at best, arrogant at worst. Voters instead picked Andrzej Duda, who had energetically campaigned across the country presenting a host of policy ideas (albeit ones that were often not grounded in fiscal reality).
The collapse of the Polish left
Biedroń’s decision to step out of national politics may also be a shrewder move than it first appears. The liberal and leftist sections of the Polish political spectrum are currently in disarray. The post-communist SLD, which was a powerful force from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, has collapsed. The candidate it supported in the presidential election, Magdalena Ogorek, received only 2.38% of the vote; recent polling suggests that the party may not receive enough support in the autumn to reach the 5% threshold needed to enter parliament. Palikot’s Movement – since renamed Your Movement (TR), but always over-reliant on the unpredictable talents of its eponymous founder – has, after an initial burst of success, fizzled out. It too appears likely to fall short of the 5% electoral hurdle.
New groupings have emerged in a bid to fill this vacuum. ModernPL (NowoczesnaPL) has attracted some figures associated with the left, but its leader distances himself from such a label. Another party, White and Reds (Bialo-Czerwoni), is being established by two prominent defectors from SLD and TR.
Meanwhile, the ruling Civic Platform, which is normally classified as a centre-right party, has, under Kopacz’s leadership, shown greater interest in socially liberal policies on, for example, same-sex civil partnerships and in vitro fertilisation. Yet a large section of the party is resisting such moves: one-third of Kopacz’s MPs voted with the opposition to help defeat the most recent civil-partnership bill. Moreover, PO is currently beset by an eavesdropping scandal that last month led to mass ministerial resignations. It looks unlikely to win reelection in the autumn.
From Biedroń’s perspective, it makes sense to remain aloof from these squabbles and wait until the dust settles, before perhaps joining whichever liberal party emerges from the fray. For the time being, he arguably has a much louder mouthpiece in Słupsk, even at the national level, than he would as a member of a minor party in the Sejm.
Indeed, not currently belonging to any party is itself an advantage at a time of general public mistrust in the whole political establishment, which has manifested itself in the explosive emergence onto the political scene of Paweł Kukiz, a former rock star who vigorously rejects traditional party politics. Despite having no discernible policies other than changing Poland’s electoral system, Kukiz claimed 20% of votes in the first-round of the presidential election, putting him in third place. He has since formed a movement that, polling suggests, could win a similar level of support in the autumn. (For his part, Biedroń criticises populist “false messiahs” like Kukiz who want to “set fire to the country” rather than pursuing the gradual improvements necessary to “build the common good”.)
How much does sexuality matter?
The big remaining question, of course, is the impact that Biedroń’s sexual orientation could have on his political prospects. Undoubtedly it will be a hindrance. Biedroń himself claims that, when he was elected to the Sejm, some of his colleagues refused to even shake hands with a gay man. Two years into his term, former president and Nobel laureate Lech Wałęsa suggested that homosexual MPs should “sit on the back bench or even behind a wall”. A recent report on Poland by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance expressed concern regarding “hate speech directed at LGBT persons, including by senior politicians”. President-elect Duda, when asked if he would accept a gay man working for him, responded that he would, as long as he didn’t “parade shirtless around the office”.
Among the Polish public more widely, 48% say that society should not accept homosexuality, while only 42% believe that it should. A large rainbow installed in Warsaw’s Saviour Square, which has become a symbol of the LGBT movement, has been attacked six times, including being burnt to the ground by nationalists during Independence Day riots in 2013.
Yet it should be noted that, when one digs a bit deeper, Polish attitudes towards homosexuality can be far more nuanced – and tolerant – than superficial stereotyping of this traditionalist, Catholic country often allows. While there may be a widespread, religiously rooted opposition to allowing same-sex couples to enter marriage or to start families – two institutions that are closely associated with the Catholic Church – Poles can be more accepting towards LGBT individuals on a personal and even political level.
A survey by Eurobarometer in 2012 asked citizens in each EU member-state how comfortable they would be with an LGBT figure holding “the highest elected political position”. Poland turned out to be the 14th most tolerant of the 27 member-states, above the likes of Austria, Finland and Portugal. At the same time as Biedroń entered parliament, Poland became the first (and still the only) country in Europe to elect a transgender MP, Anna Grodzka.
Two polls conducted in 2013 found 40-47% of the public in favour of civil partnerships for same-sex couples – a sharp increase on previous surveys, suggesting that the figure may well have passed the 50% mark since then. LGBT equality marches take place annually in cities like Warsaw and Kraków with little of the aggressive opposition they faced just a few years ago. Pew polling has found young Poles more tolerant regarding homosexuality than their elders, suggesting an ongoing softening of attitudes.
The fact that Biedroń has won both the elections he has seriously contested indicates that his sexual orientation is not an insurmountable hurdle. The issue featured little during campaigning in Słupsk, nor during his time as mayor since then. Indeed, his conservative opponents appear more interested in attacking his liberal secularism than his sexuality.
Last month it was revealed that conservative political activists have made two requests to Słupsk prosecutors, demanding that they investigate Biedroń for the crime of “insulting an object of religious worship”. The basis of their complaint was his decision to remove a portrait of Pope John Paul II from the mayor’s office. Biedroń, noting that the portrait had been transferred to a local church, denies any offence, and claims that his actions were out of respect for the separation between church and state (theoretically enshrined in Poland’s constitution, but in practice a distinction that is often rather blurred).
It thus appears that, while unease at Biedroń’s sexuality undoubtedly exists, it is on his political views, personal style and policies that he will be primarily judged. At a time when Poland is at a crossroads – with widespread disillusionment at the political establishment and a bitter struggle between conservatives and liberals – the path that he takes, and his degree of success in pursuing it, will say much about the country’s broader political and social development.
Main image credit: Wikimedia Commons/Jarosław Kruk (used under CC BY-SA 4.0)
Daniel Tilles is editor-in-chief of Notes from Poland and assistant professor of history at the Pedagogical University of Krakow. He has written on Polish affairs for a wide range of publications, including Foreign Policy, POLITICO Europe, The Independent and Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.