SZCZECIN, Poland — When left-wing Polish politician Robert Biedron celebrated late last year that his party was polling at almost 10 percent, it was surprising in more than just one way. For one, Biedron’s party did not yet exist.
With no party name or agenda and almost two years to go until presidential elections, he had nevertheless embarked on an improvised road trip across Poland to rally crowds for his cause. Speaking in shopping centers and community halls, the 42-year-old was being welcomed by mostly young and urban audience members, who applauded his demands to separate church and state, phase out coal, and improve rights for women and LGBT people.
On Sunday, the openly gay former LGBT rights activist finally announced the name of his new party, Wiosna (Spring), as he rallied his supporters around their shared goal of gaining a substantial number of seats during European elections in May, parliamentary elections later this year and, perhaps, even more support during presidential elections in 2020.
“There is no room for hate; we have reached the limit,” Biedron said in Warsaw on Sunday, speaking to thousands of supporters. His speech on Sunday bore some of the hallmarks of French President Emmanuel Macron’s early days on the campaign trail — when he started as an underdog outside of the traditional party system before quickly gaining momentum as voters abandoned the country’s two mainstream parties in droves. Amid a populist backlash, Macron managed to rally genuine supporters and voters afraid of a far-right president. In Poland, Biedron’s best bet might be to follow Macron’s path.
But Poland isn’t France, as Biedron acknowledged in an interview with The Washington Post in late November. He said that he had taken inspiration from Macron and leftist senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), but he maintained that “Poland is distinct.”
The current Polish political leadership, Biedron said, was living in “medieval times.” Biedron joined Parliament in 2011, before serving as the mayor of the northern Polish city of Slupsk, where he quickly gained popularity.
“We need politicians for the 21st century,” he said in November.
Many Poles appear to agree that they like Biedron as a politician, according to recent popularity rankings. But the question is whether a sufficient number of voters in a country with some of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws, a strong Catholic church and a strong dependency on coal will share his progressive vision for the country.
Speaking at an impromptu appearance at a shopping center in the western city of Szczecin, right beneath a tech store called Media Expert, the charismatic politician drew a diverse crowd of mostly young supporters at a book tour and de facto rally in November.
“What I like about him is that he accepts everyone,” said Klaudia Lewandowska, a 19-year-old law student.
“His thinking is very modern,” her friend Marta Losos agreed. “I don’t like [Law and Justice] — to me, they stand for old thinking.”
Since Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice won an outright majority more than three years ago, human rights organizations and other European Union member states have voiced mounting concerns about what they perceive to be a dangerous weakening of democratic institutions. Its critics say that Law and Justice deliberately stirred nationalistic sentiment to justify a weakening of the judiciary and the free press. Although Law and Justice officials have distanced themselves from far-right movements, the party’s liberal opponents have insisted that those efforts have come too late and only halfheartedly.
Amid this polarizing moment, a 27-year-old man with a history of crime and mental illness fatally stabbed a prominent liberal Polish opposition leader, Gdansk Mayor Pawel Adamowicz, in mid-January. The gruesome killing was swiftly condemned by members of all parties, with Polish President Andrzej Duda writing: “Hostility and violence has brought about the most tragic and painful result.”
But to Adamowicz’s friends and allies, the killing highlighted the need to vote the governing party out of office, which they consider responsible for a rise in recent hate crimes. Although Biedron is framing his movement as an opportunity to heal the partisan divides, he vowed Sunday to continue Adamowicz’s work. Adamowicz’s ambitions — including his efforts to stop political interference in the judiciary and to expand LGBT rights — would be pursued by his own party, Biedron said.
After more than three years of Law and Justice leadership, the time may be right for a liberal experiment in Polish politics. Although the right-wing bloc’s approval ratings remain high, there are signs that what was once certain in Poland may no longer be. Even though nearly 9 in 10 people identify as Catholic, a black comedy called “Kler” (Polish for “Clergy”) that’s sharply critical of the Catholic Church became one of the country’s top blockbusters of all time last year.
Growing interest in curbing the expansive powers of the church could also be bad news for the Law and Justice party, which has openly strengthened its ties to the clergy in recent years. Biedron, meanwhile, has vowed to end religious education in Polish schools.
But Biedron will face challenges from both ends of the political spectrum. Although the mainstream opposition party, Civic Platform, has itself come under criticism over corruption allegations and is being seen as part of the political class that has maneuvered Poland into a deadlock, it remains Law and Justice’s key opponent. Biedron’s leadership bid could risk splitting the opposition and ultimately weakening it, his critics argue.
During one of his first de facto campaign events in November in Szczecin, his supporters agreed that it was a risk worth taking.
Said Martin Kupryjanczyk, 24: “If he wins the vote, it will be a revolution,”
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