SWIDNIK, Poland (Reuters) – Teresa Drzewiecka grew up during World War Two, when German and Soviet troops battled for control of her town of Swidnik in eastern Poland.
Now 83, she sees another threat to her country’s survival: lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.
“Let children have a father and a mother, not such deviations,” said Drzewiecka, resting on a bench in a Swidnik park. “Otherwise there will be fewer and fewer children, and Poland will shrink.”
In March, her local council in Swidnik passed a motion to reject what it viewed as the spread of “LGBT ideology” in homes, schools and workplaces. A handful of other areas, mostly in conservative rural Poland, have issued similar statements.
Views that are offensive or illegal in many European countries have been widely aired in Poland ahead of the European Parliament elections, where LGBT rights are a hot-button issue.
In a bitter campaign, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has depicted such rights as dangerous foreign ideas that undermine traditional values in Poland, a staunchly Catholic country.
Another PiS target has been a new sex education program, based on World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, due to be introduced to schools in the capital Warsaw, a bastion of liberalism run by the opposition Civic Platform party.
Some PiS politicians have publicly denounced the program, claiming it will sexualize children.
PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has urged Poles to vote for what he calls “the only party that gives a 100% guarantee that our values will be protected”.
LGBT rights and WHO standards constitute foreign values that pose “a real threat to our identity, to our nation,” he has said.
Analysts say that PiS hopes to re-energize its mainly rural base by vowing to push back against Western liberalism.
With turnout in European elections typically lowest in PiS’s rural strongholds, the party needs to persuade more people to vote, especially as some polls show it running neck and neck with a rival pro-European coalition.
While divisive, the campaign seems to have got voters’ attention.
Marcin Duma, CEO of Warsaw-based pollster IBRIS, said its survey published on May 19 suggested the turnout could be around 40% – unprecedented in a country where barely a quarter of the electorate usually vote in European elections.
The result of the upcoming polls matter because PiS and Civic Platform see it impacting on a general election due in October or November.
PiS took power in 2015 and remains popular, thanks to generous welfare payouts, low unemployment and nationalist rhetoric.
Some observers see parallels with the party’s 2015 campaign, when it deployed anti-immigrant rhetoric.
“PiS needs an enemy, someone to fight against, someone they can use to raise fear,” said Bartosz Staszewski, an LGBT activist. “Before, it was immigrants. This time it’s LGBT people.”
Staszewski said anti-LGBT declarations by Swidnik and other councils were not legally binding, but nevertheless had a chilling effect.
“How are LGBT people, particularly the young, supposed to feel … when they hear that the regional council or local government are against them?” he said.
Last year, Staszewski organized an “equality” march in the nearby city of Lublin. Participants were hounded by hundreds of aggressive men who were dispersed by riot police firing tear gas.
In February, Warsaw mayor Rafal Trzaskowski signed a pro-LGBT declaration that included a promise to launch a school education program along WHO guidelines.
Swidnik councillor Radoslaw Brzozka said his town issued its anti-LGBT statement in response to Warsaw’s declaration, which he said was “against good moral values.”
A survey by CBOS, Poland’s state polling agency, in April suggested that a majority of Poles disapprove of Warsaw’s stance on LGBT rights. Most of those polled said sex education should start at age 10 or later.
But other CBOS polls show that people in Poland are slowly growing more tolerant. In a 2017 survey, 24 percent of respondents said being gay wasn’t normal and shouldn’t be tolerated compared to 41 percent in 2001; and 16 percent said in 2017 that being gay was normal compared to 5 percent in 2001.
Even in Swidnik, not everyone approves of the council’s hard line stance.
“There’s no need to introduce such an anti-LGBT resolution,” said Franciszek Mosakowski, 71. “There should be a place for everyone here.”