‘Nightmare is over’: Polish election result brings relief for LGBTQ+ people | Poland

For the past eight years, fear and anxiety has threaded through much of Bart Staszewski’s daily life. As a gay man living in Poland, he found himself increasingly under attack by a government that had sought to depict the LGBTQ+ community as a threat to the nation and its children, fuelling prejudices and hate crimes across the country.

But since last month’s election pointed to a possible route to power for opposition parties, Staszewski has been gripped by a wave of relief. “It’s like I’m breathing fresh air for the first time in eight years,” he said. “After years of hate against people like me, the nightmare is over.”

While the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) emerged from the election with the biggest share of the vote , there is no clear path for the rightwing populists to form a majority. The country could instead be governed by a coalition made up of the Civic Coalition, led by Donald Tusk, the centre-right Third Way and the leftist Lewica.

The LGBTQ+ movement became stronger after being demonised by the PiS party, says Staszewski. Photograph: Piotr Łapiński/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock

The possibility has ignited hopes among weary campaigners and human rights defenders who have for years been forced to set aside the push for progress and instead reckon with the government’s demonisation of LGBTQ+ people, migrants and refugees.

“This is the first time that I wake up without thinking about how they are going to attack us,” said Staszewski, a film-maker and LGBTQ+ activist. “Or will the police come with a search warrant to my home for some stupid reason, as has happened to other activists?”

In 2020, Staszewski was singled out by the government for having “falsified reality”, to use the words of the prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, after the activist’s protests against the dozens of municipalities in Poland that had declared themselves to be free of “LGBT ideology” went viral.

The protests were part of what Staszewski described as the “beautiful resistance” – the stronger, more vibrant LGBTQ+ movement that has flourished in Poland even as the community was under constant attack.

Now his focus has turned to harnessing this energy to convince the new government to protect the LGBTQ+ community by adding sexual orientation and gender expression to the country’s hate crime legislation. “We cannot let this history ever repeat itself,” he said.

While Tusk has said the new government will prioritise legislation to introduce same-sex civil partnerships, any legislative manoeuvring may be complicated by the PiS-aligned president, Andrzej Duda, and his veto.

For the Ocalenie Foundation, a Polish NGO that helps refugees and migrants build a new life in Poland, the election results came as a welcome surprise. “But I wouldn’t say that we’re ecstatic,” said Kalina Czwarnóg, a board member.

Much of her hesitation comes down to the hard-fought election campaign during which PiS sought to convince voters it could protect Poland from an “invasion” of refugees. Tusk, a former prime minister and European Council president at the helm of a centre-right party, hit back with a similar tone, stoking fears about Muslim migration as he sought to woo voters.

“It was kind of a sad surprise for us to see that,” she said. “So that’s why we’re so worried that they will not change the situation on our Polish-Belarusian border.”

Since 2021, the situation on the border has been dire as thousands of asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan and other countries have found themselves trapped in one of Europe’s last primeval forests, with no food or shelter to protect them when temperatures begin to plunge.

Organisations such as Amnesty International and the UN refugee agency have accused Poland of breaking international law by pushing the migrants back to Belarus rather than allowing them to apply for asylum in Poland.

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While Czwarnóg expected the pushbacks to continue regardless of the change in government, she saw glimmers of good news in the election results. Those elected included 14 people who had been personally involved in helping the stranded migrants, she said, while the potential inclusion of a leftwing party in the ruling coalition could help to temper some of the anti-immigrant rhetoric and quell the state’s hostility towards those working to help migrants at the border. “So I think this is already a good start, you know, to build something.”

At Poland’s oldest human rights organisation, the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, the change in government is being viewed as a chance to not only “clean up the messes” made by PiS, who have been accused of democratic backsliding and politicising the courts, but also to start exploring longer-term questions such as how Polish society might look in 15 years or how to build a resilient judiciary system.

“For the last eight years, what was frustrating from the civil society perspective was that we were so focused on solving the problems that the governing majority was creating on its own, such as the purge of the judiciary,” said Małgorzata Szuleka, of the group.

“We felt like there was no way to advance, we needed to get back to square one and protect the fundamental freedoms we thought were sorted out 30 years ago,” she continued.

She described herself as “very cautious” about the potential for change- not least because the installation of a new government is unlikely to happen before December. “It simply doesn’t work that way, that a week ago it was an illiberal democracy and now we are a full-fledged liberal democracy.”

Instead Szuleka pointed to the record voter turnout and those who had spent as long as six hours in queues to cast their ballots to explain why she was optimistic about what may lie ahead for the country.

“It’s so inspiring to see how many people decided to contribute and be part of the change,” she said. “So this is my source of hope.”

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