Robert Biedron is a politician for openness and a hero to Poland's left. The challenge the current mayor of Slupsk poses to the country's establishment has drawn comparisons to French President Emmanuel Macron.
When meeting with supporters, Robert Biedron appears beaming, vibrant and confident. For months, Poland's first openly gay mayor has been beating the drum for his new party, set to be founded in February 2019. The move to comes as the country gears up for four elections, domestic and European, over the next 21 months.
His regular events, dubbed "Brainstorming with Biedron," attract hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people. His agenda is classic left: reduce poverty, liberalize abortion restrictions, create more preschool spots and improve the state-run health system. But it is his relaxed demeanor, less stilted than established politicians, and his life story that lend him an air of authenticity and credibility.
Gay in a Catholic country
Biedron comes from staunchly conservative southern Poland. As a youth, he was ostracized for his homosexuality, suffering to the point of contemplating suicide. As a politician, he has campaigned for LGBT+ rights. His "Campaign Against Homophobia," founded in 2001, was a source of controversy in Poland's conservative society. Ten years later, he became Poland's first openly-gay member of the Polish parliament, the Sejm.
The avowed patriot is determined to marry his long-time partner Krzysztof — but only if he can do it in Poland, where it is currently banned. "I'm a Pole. I have paid my taxes and served my country for years," the 42-year-old said. "That's why I expect to be treated equally in my state." Should same-sex marriage become legal in Poland, the mayor and his partner hope to wed in Slupsk, where Biedron has been mayor since 2014.
His term leading his city of 93,000 in northern Poland ends in November 2018. He is not running again, despite high approval ratings thanks in part to pulling Slupsk out of debt. Sixty percent of voters would reelect him, according to polls, but Biedron wants to return to the national stage.
Biedron is a thorn in the side of the ruling nationalist, conservative Law and Justice party (PiS). But even in centrist camps he is struggling to find favor. The Christian democratic Civic Platform (PO) and the liberal Modern party joined forces in May to form the "Citizens Coalition."
They fear Biedron could cost their candidates votes. He speaks candidly about loosening abortion restrictions, an explosive topic in Poland and something the liberal coalition does not touch for fear of alienating its center-right supporters.
The PiS has absorbed much of the left's social agenda over the last several years. The party's flagship child support program is like no other social program in recent Polish history.
That leaves voters who are in favor of expanding social welfare but against the nationalistic, conservative direction of PiS feeling unrepresented by existing parties. Biedron's future party may be able to tap into that group.
Journalists and observers have compared him to French President Emmanuel Macron. Biedron's charisma may usher in a new kind of politics in Poland, giving establishment parties reason to fear the damage he could do to their political landscape.
Should his party collaborate with Macron's in European Parliament elections scheduled for May 2019, as some media reports have speculated, the two could form an alliance at European level.
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EU election test
Those elections would be Biedron's party's first test, ahead of the more important Polish general elections in late 2019. "I'm entering politics to change Poland, and only a prime minister has real influence on daily life," Biedron told the Polish tabloid, Super Express.
He could even land third place in 2020 presidential elections. A recent poll puts him just behind present incumbent Andrzej Duda and European Council President Donald Tusk, who is seen as the opposition's best chance. Biedron has not yet refuted speculation about his presidential ambitions.