Lech Walesa, the Polish icon who fought for human rights and freedom in the 1980s, sparked outrage on March 2 as he waded into the growing storm over gay rights in the staunchly Catholic country to declare that homosexuals should know their place and accept limited democratic participation. His comments help stoke a growing fight between the country's conservatives and liberals on a range of issues.
Apparently the Nobel peace prize winner wasn't fighting for gay Poles when he led the strike of shipyard union Solidarity to push for greater freedom. The deeply religious former president has become a controversial figure in his later years, and continued in that role during a TV interview.
Following recent parliamentary votes that saw the government fail to push legislation on civil partnerships past conservatives - including many MPs in the ruling coalition - and a trans-sexual deputy ousted from the race to become deputy speaker by a consensus vote from across the lower house, Walesa was asked where homosexuals should sit in the parliamentary chamber.
"No minority should climb all over the majority," the former dissident said according to newswires. "Homosexuals should even sit behind a wall, and not somewhere at the front... They must know they are a minority and adapt themselves to smaller things, and not rise to the greatest heights."
The debate around issues such as sexual minorities and abortion is starting to impact broader policy in Warsaw. Prime Minister Donald Tusk's cabinet is discussing topics such as its role in the EU and the timing of joining the euro, but by riling conservatives in the coalition, the social issues are limiting his room for maneuver across the whole range of issues.
Polish liberals shot back at Walesa over the weekend, with some insisting he has irreparably harmed his democratic credentials and his legacy. Never one to miss a point of leverage for a bit of self promotion, Janusz Palikot, leader of the anti-clerical, pro-gay rights Palikot Movement, told Reuters: "Lech Walesa up until now was known for tearing down walls, not building them."
Palikot remains a potential power broker for the government should it lose control of its more conservative elements. "Walesa's words contradict democracy because that form of government is based on protecting minorities," Palikot added.
However, the former president has been an increasing irrelevance for some time; it's the conservatives both outside and inside the government that offer the main challenge.
Worried by the prospect of being left aside as the crisis pushes the Eurozone to tighter integration in economic policy and banking regulation, Tusk and his senior ministers are seeking ways to push the debate forward in Poland without stirring the population against the plan to join the troubled single currency.
Finance Minister Jacek Rostowski attempted to reclaim the euro debate on March 1 when he put the focus on a larger range of technical issues connected to any bid. However, he also insisted Poland must decide on its path soon in order to book its place at the top EU table, warning that "staying outside the euro zone risks dramatic marginalization."
However, the balancing act goes on. While the main conservative opposition Law and Justice party is a disorganized force, its support would be needed to approve constitutional changes necessary to joining the single currency. But it's not just a question of trying to push euro-adoption past the opposition. There is a significant conservative force within Tusk's Civic Forum (PO) opposed to both the euro and wider social justice which could threaten the government's survival if provoked. Forty-six PO MPs voted against their own party's bill on civil partnerships in late January, and Justice Minister Jaroslaw Gowin, who attacked that bill as unconstitutional, could pose a real threat from the right of the party.
Media speculation suggests Gowin - a rare voice of dissent in the well-oiled PO machine - could take up to 40 deputies with him should his fight with the party leadership flare up. With the addition of opposition from conservative junior coalition partner PSL to many of the government's proposals, antagonizing the right could threaten the government's majority. At the same time, Tusk needs the conservatives in PO to maintain the inclusive image that the party has successfully promoted to voters over the past two elections.
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