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POLAND: Białystok Equality March

On Saturday, the LGBT+ movement Tęczowy Białystok (Rainbow Bialystok) organised the first March of Equality (Marsz Równości; Poland’s pride parade) in Poland’s eastern city of Białystok. Since April, similar events have taken place in 15 other Polish cities. The march, which was sanctioned by the local authorities, was interrupted by violent counter-protesters. As a result, according to media reports, 14 participants of the equality march suffered injuries, albeit this number remains unconfirmed by the police. The police, who provided security for the march, detained 25 persons from the counter-protest – 4 have been charged with crimes, 21 have been charged for misdemeanours (19 were fined, 2 referred to court). The police have insisted they will continue their efforts to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Over recent years, public discussion in regard to LGBT+ postulates in Poland has been intensifying. According to unofficial data, 5% of Poles identify themselves as members of the LGBT+ community. This data, however, remains an estimate. Organisations and representatives of the LGBT+ community advocate tolerance and equal rights, including the right to marriage and same-sex adoption. Though large cities tend to represent a more progressive approach to these postulates, much of Polish society remains conservative, in line with its continued strong Christian faith – making what many consider to be a culture war that is increasingly visible and vocal.

Political parties across the spectrum were quick to react, albeit with different intensity. Leaders of the newly-formed Left Coalition (running in the upcoming parliamentary elections) quickly announced that they will organise a public demonstration against violence in Białystok this weekend. It is the Left that has the most to gain. If this new coalition builds momentum, it may be able to form its own anti-violence narrative, rather than react to the ruling party’s narrative. The Civic Platform condemned the counter-protests but was more reserved than the Left. For PiS’ Elżbieta Witek, this was the first crisis situation in her new role as Interior Minister, responsible for police and security service oversight. Her reaction to the incidents was swift and conventional. She condemned the violence and entrusted the police with the investigation of the incidents that took place. On the other hand, the new Education Minister Dariusz Piontkowski suggested that the postulates voiced by the LGBT+ community “trigger defiance amongst many Poles” and that it might be worth banning such demonstrations in the future.

While it is the opposition Civic Platform’s Tadeusz Truskolaski that is Białystok Mayor, the region is considered to be one of the most conservative strongholds in Poland. In the recent European elections, PiS received 55.2% of votes in the Białystok constituency with the European Coalition in second place with 30.2%, and the right-wing Confederation third with 5.71%. Similarly, in the 2018 local election, Law and Justice won 41.64% in the Podlasie Regional Assembly. Mayor Truskolaski stated yesterday that he will notify the Prosecutor of the possibility of crimes committed by PiS representatives on the basis of recordings and eyewitnesses that the Marshal of the Voivodship Artur Kosicki and three other local PiS politicians took an active part in the blockade of the march.

Much of the election campaign ahead of the European vote revolved around the role of the Catholic Church in Poland. Now, it seems that matters involving LGBT+ postulates, sexuality, and family issues will play a more important role in the political debate. PiS has usually been skillful in using this to reinforce its focus on traditional family values to mobilise their voters. The situation could take unexpected turns, however, in the event of further violent incidents, such as this weekend in Białystok, that might yet dramatically mobilise the anti-PiS vote.