Poland's Jaroslaw Kaczynski's figure looms large in his homeland. Indeed, the image of a leader with almost superhuman powers has spread across Central and Eastern Europe, argues polish author Stanislaw Strasburger.
"The 'black protests' scared him, because he'd never seen a woman before in his entire life," said Wladyslaw Frasyniuk during an anti-government demonstration in Warsaw. Frasyniuk was referring to Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the chairman of the conservative Law and Justice party (PiS), and his reaction to the mass protests that took place in 2016, when thousands of women poured into the streets to protest the government's new abortion law.
For a time, Frasyniuk was regarded as the likely leader of a wide-scale opposition movement. A legendary figure from the "Solidarity" movement in the 1980s, he has nonetheless fallen off the political scene somewhat in recent years. Many in Poland, searching for a political representative for the countless citizens protesting the PiS, believed he was almost predestined to assume the role of a left-wing opposition leader.
Meanwhile, other prominent political figures in Poland were embracing a similar tone as did Frasyniuk. The new head of the Committee for the Defense of Democracy (KOD), a pro-European NGO, said this during the same demonstration in Warsaw: "If I were a woman, I would burst into tears right now, but I am a strong man."
A PiS deputy recently suggested on another occasion "to try sex [as therapy]." She will feel "butterflies in the belly, a relaxed back and have flowers in her hair. That way her thoughts can also be arranged."
Antiquated gender perceptions
In one way or another, the men all apologized for their comments. It didn't help much. Criticism was fired at them from all sides. The chauvinism and sexism in public debate were vehemently denounced. Great hopes were suddenly burst. A good deal of political capital was lost overnight. But what does it say about our political life?
Of course, I believe the above statements should be criticized. But they strike me not so much as evidence of the sexist attitudes of those who uttered them, but rather as a reflection of their awkwardness in dealing with their emotions.
Underscored here are certain ideas of traditional gender roles. Men are believed to be fundamentally strong and rational but not emotional; women are often deprecated in politics because they are not predestined to bear the burden of political life, or they are thought to be emotional, which is seen as a weakness.
Embracing emotion and accepting sexuality
Implied sexual frustrations are often used as as a weapon in political power struggles. In Poland, for example, a common assumption is that Kaczynski is a repressed homosexual: His politics are allegedly due to his own internal conflict.
In order to counteract all this, the stigma must be taken away from emotion and sexuality in political discourse. The problem is not just limited to Poland. The strict demands on separating the private from the public in Western life seems artificial and disturbing from a humanist perspective. Politicians, after all, are people too: They live out their feelings, become emotional and say stupid stuff. Just like us.
An open approach by politicians to having emotions should be accompanied by a societal acceptance of the diversity of gender roles. This acceptance should also be embraced by political figures. Politicians do not need "superhuman" status - understood as emotionless, asexual and equipped with special powers and abilities.
The fierce criticism directed at the men who uttered the above statements is also reflective of a messianic image of political leaders that dates back to 19th century romanticism. This Messianism is very common in Central and Eastern Europe, but it's not only present there.
It is the idea of a man who is endowed with superhuman powers. He is not only supremely strong and intelligent, but he is also a chosen leader who sacrifices himself for his community - or his nation. It is significant to note that this "messiah" is also always a man.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski paradoxically fulfills this role for many of his followers and critics alike. According to Messianic logic, only someone who is equal to him could take up the struggle to rid Poland of the PiS. In short: He must be Superman!
Networks instead of messiahs
But the role of the "anti-PiS-messiah" remains vacant - and that's a good thing. Messianic thinking can not be the recipe for the political renewal of a country. Rather, the answer lies in regional and municipal movements in which people organize themselves locally.
Of course these people need political representation. But such movements are a good safeguard against strong, nationalist leaders because they are not looking for a unifying discourse. Instead, they regard their decentralized nature as a fundamental value.
Such a network is an important component of "EUtopia:" If a united Europe is going to have a permanent political existence, this is the path that should be encouraged.