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As Europe applauds Poland's election results, civil rights groups prepare to fight

Hubert Sobecki is a spokesperson for Love Does Not Exclude, an association that represents Poland's LGBTQ+ community. Sobecki says while he's encouraged that Polish voters have rejected the ruling right-wing Law and Justice party, he's not convinced that Donald Tusk's Civic Coalition represents a big change for the LGBTQ+ community in Poland.
Rob Schmitz/NPR
Hubert Sobecki is a spokesperson for Love Does Not Exclude, an association that represents Poland's LGBTQ+ community. Sobecki says while he's encouraged that Polish voters have rejected the ruling right-wing Law and Justice party, he's not convinced that Donald Tusk's Civic Coalition represents a big change for the LGBTQ+ community in Poland.

WARSAW, Poland — As results from Poland's Sunday election began pouring in, Hubert Sobecki watched in disbelief as it started to dawn on him that the right-wing Law and Justice party would not be governing the country much longer.

"It's like living in a toxic household with a violent partner, and suddenly you're free of them," says Sobecki, a spokesman for Love Does Not Exclude, an association representing Poland's LGBTQ+ community. "How can you learn to live again?"

During eight years in power, the Law and Justice party, known by its Polish abbreviation PiS, has established what it calls "LGBTQ-free zones" across the country. It has called homosexuals "animals," "emissaries of Satan" and worse.

A few years ago, when retail giant Ikea fired a Polish employee for making homophobic remarks on the company's internal website, Poland's PiS-led government sued on behalf of the employee.

And now that a more progressive government is on its way in, Sobecki isn't sure how he feels.

"I've seen so many governments coming and going and different parties, and they've all been quite arrogantly, brazenly, openly ignoring LGBTQ+ people in this country," he says. "So, again, I try to dare to hope rather than hope from day one."

Sobecki says the majority of those in the opposition who won Poland's election are old guard politicians like former Prime Minister Donald Tusk, with whom his organization has already tried to negotiate equal rights when he was in power.

"And he was not a very good partner to discuss it with," Sobecki remembers. "He always treated us like a problem rather than a social group with whom he can meet. He never met with us in person. Never."

Tusk's Civic Coalition made a campaign promise to introduce a bill to legalize civil unions, but Sobecki says it's not clear what legal rights that will give his community, if any.

"Do not confuse happiness with cessation of pain," he says. "Just because we can count on public television no longer calling us 'pedophiles' — maybe this is not the highest standards that we should aim for?"

Polish abortion rights advocate Natalia Broniarczyk says a change of government may not accomplish what many of her fellow advocates are looking for when it comes to a woman's right to an abortion in Poland.
/ Rob Schmitz/NPR
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Rob Schmitz/NPR
Polish abortion rights advocate Natalia Broniarczyk says a change of government may not accomplish what many of her fellow advocates are looking for when it comes to a woman's right to an abortion in Poland.

Abortion rights advocates are also skeptical the new government will embrace their goals

A few neighborhoods away in Poland's capital, Natalia Broniarczyk was unpacking from a trip to Strasbourg, France, where she accepted a European Union award for her work on abortion rights, when she heard the election news.

"You can see that I'm quite cheerful, but I'm also a realist," she says. "So I know that we still have so much work to do."

Three years ago, Poland's government further restricted abortion to include cases of malformed fetuses.

"We were breaking the law many times to save someone's life," says Broniarczyk. "We were sending pills to hospitals, which is illegal. We were calling to hospitals and threatening doctors that we will send TV if they will not do a procedure."

Last weekend, Broniarczyk says police showed up at her parents' home outside of Warsaw looking for her. A new liberal government will likely mean these visits will stop, but Broniarczyk isn't optimistic.

"I think that they are not brave enough to be supporters of legal abortion on demand," she says of who will likely form the new government. "And to be honest, I don't have any hope if it comes to Donald Tusk because he promised so many times legal abortion."

That was when Tusk was prime minister years ago, and she says he didn't keep his promises. Tusk promises to introduce a bill that would legalize abortion for pregnancies up to 12 weeks, but Broniarczyk isn't holding her breath.

She says now the waiting starts for Tusk and his incoming government to be brave and go beyond their promises.

Piotr Zakowiecki contributed to this report from Warsaw.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.