Hopes and fears as polarised Poles choose president

AFP
July 11, 2020

In his village in southeast Poland, farmer Grzegorz Myszak is far from alone in supporting Poland’s populist President Andrzej Duda on Sunday in a knife-edge run-off against liberal Warsaw...

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In his village in southeast Poland, farmer Grzegorz Myszak is far from alone in supporting Poland’s populist President Andrzej Duda on Sunday in a knife-edge run-off against liberal Warsaw mayor Rafal Trzaskowski.

Surveys show the contenders neck and neck nationwide but there are major regional differences and Godziszow -- located in the staunchly conservative east -- is where Duda scored 86 percent of the vote in the first round, his best result.

"I’ll choose Duda, of course. With five kids, we get 2,500 zloty ($630) per month, so it’s as if my wife had a job but instead, she can take care of the family," Myszak told AFP, speaking among long neat rows of raspberry bushes on his farm.

The 41-year-old also works for the local council and raises pigs to give his family what he describes as a "comfortable" lifestyle -- part of an upwardly mobile rural electorate that is overwhelmingly pro-Duda.

Allied with the Law and Justice (PiS) government, Duda has vowed to defend its raft of popular social benefits, including a child allowance and extra pension payments that help the PiS win a second term last year.

He has also led a highly polarising campaign, attacking sexual minorities and rejecting Western liberal values, all with the tacit blessing of Poland’s influential Catholic Church, which holds sway over devout rural voters.

Myszak says he is worried a Trzaskowski victory would bring a "rocky cohabitation" with the PiS government and possible legislative paralysis. He also fears it could open the door to sex education in schools or civil partnerships for same-sex couples. Myszak says he only knows of one person who he believes might have been gay in Godziszow, but who moved away long ago.

Analysts say Duda and his populist allies have been deftly courting rural voters who have benefited from PiS social spending on the back of more than a decade of generous EU farm and development subsidies.

"We’re pleased someone finally values us, sees our achievements and potential," said Magda Ciupak, 33, an English teacher and mother of two who runs a farm with her husband and also heads the Godziszow local council.

"The PiS understood this, while other parties still often see us as backward and ignorant," she said. Although Trzaskowski has also vowed to defend PiS social spending, rural voters see Duda as a better option to protect their interests, especially as the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic sends Poland into its first recession since communism fell three decades ago.

Rural voters also see Duda as a bulwark against perceived threats to family values from the Western-oriented liberal urban elites that Trzaskowski represents. Gay rights campaigners say Duda and his PiS backers have whipped up a climate of homophobia that is causing some gay people to fear for their lives and pushing them to leave Poland.

Encouraged by the PiS, local authorities in roughly a third of the EU country, mostly its rural southeast, created so-called LGBT-free zones last year in reaction to a declaration on LGBT rights adopted in Warsaw by Trzaskowski. Amnesty International and the European Parliament, among others, have condemned the zones. Iwona Serewa, a 27-year-old lesbian who runs Wyrko, the only LGBT+ nightclub in the city of Lublin, has no illusions about a Duda victory.

"If he gets a second term, we can forget about better conditions for LGBT+ people," she told AFP, adding that she will vote "for Trzaskowski, to block the PiS government." PiS party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has called the LGBT+ community a "threat" to traditional families and thanked a senior Catholic cleric for labelling it a "rainbow plague", moves that critics likened to Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Hubert Liszewski, a gay 23-year-old student at Lublin University, says the election is pivotal to his future. He has suffered two homophobic attacks since 2017 -- including one by members of a far-right group -- that left him hospitalised with a broken leg and facial injuries. "If Duda wins things won’t change. I’ll leave rather than wait around for another attack. Basically my life is at risk."



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