Robert Biedron is a progressive and openly gay mayor in one of Europe’s most conservative countries.
Slupsk, Poland — Poland’s right-wing government has put it on the fringes of Europe on issues that include abortion, migration and democracy. But a charismatic 40-year-old mayor is leading a counter-cultural charge from the Baltic coast city of Slupsk.
Robert Biedron, the country’s only openly gay mayor, has become one of the leading voices of opposition to the nationalist Law and Justice Party, igniting hope among liberal commentators who have suggested he should run for president in 2020.
In both word and deed, Biedron is proving to be a very different kind of Polish politician — one who openly embraces secular and liberal values as well as a radical open-door policy.
In the town hall, there are no security checks en route to his office and it’s common for people to grab him in the corridor to speak. Occasionally, he will even take a red sofa into town and invite people to sit down and chat. This “red sofa method,” he says, is a way to gather information about voters’ concerns.
“I spend all day in a castle,” Biedron said during an interview in the city hall, a neo-gothic building from 1901. “But I will not close myself in a mental castle. I cannot make decisions unless I feel the heart of the city.”
And the city will come to him. On a recent day, a pensioner walked straight into his office saying, “I really need to sit down and talk to you, Mr. Mayor.” A woman grabbed him in the corridor to explain a parking problem. Someone else was shocked the mayor didn’t instantly recollect her name.
“He is trying to show how local administration and democracy should really work,” said a 30-year-old resident of Slupsk named Michal. “That they should mean serving people, not abusing them.”
Slupsk, which is home to about 90,000 people, is the fifth most indebted town in Poland, and Biedron, a political scientist by education, is on a mission to cut the €63 million deficit. So far, he has managed to bring it down 10 percent. He has led by example, making the town hall a paragon of frugality: volunteering for a salary cut and giving up his official limousine to bike to work. Visitors are offered water from the tap instead of bottled water.
But there have been other, more profound, changes.
After becoming mayor two years ago, he removed a portrait of Pope John Paul II, a national hero, from his office, arguing state institutions should be secular. This year, in response to an anti-migrant social media post by a Slupsk teacher, he brought a refugee family to her class to challenge her views.
More recently, he has denounced the hardline abortion legislation before parliament which would completely ban the procedure, even in cases of rape, incest or fetal deformation, and has warned that Poland is at risk of becoming an “authoritarian democracy.”
A long-term activist for LGBT rights, Biedron became Poland’s first openly gay member of parliament running for the liberal Palikot Movement. While a parliamentarian, he was beaten up on the streets, he said. “But I knew this was the only way: If people were not directly confronted with me, they wouldn’t have a chance to change their minds about gays.”
Although Poland doesn’t allow civil partnership for gays, let alone gay marriage, couples from across Poland have journeyed to Slupsk to have Biedron solemnize their ceremonies.
In 2014, when he ran for mayor, voters backed him because they felt he was listening to them. But he also cleverly tapped into Slupsk’s resentment at being overshadowed by bigger nearby cities such as Gdansk and displayed a knack for retail politics, winning the mayoral seat by running a door-to-door cashless campaign.
It has not gone unnoticed.
The columnist Witold Gadomski described him as “one of the most interesting Polish politicians” in the pages of the Gazeta Wyborcza, one of the country’s leading papers, writing: “All parties that aren’t xenophobic, nationalist and narrow-minded should fight for him.”
A country divided
Biedron’s success in Slupsk underlines that Poland is a complicated place politically, especially since elections last year when the Law and Justice Party’s victory effectively split the country into two hostile camps.
The government, which is making waves at home and abroad with its hardline stance on abortion and migration, won its absolutely parliamentary majority with only 37.6 percent of the national vote, thanks to quirks in the voter allocation system. That means there are many Poles who don’t agree with the government’s conservative line — and Biedron has become one of their voices.
While Law and Justice tends to do best in smaller towns and villages, where many people are upset over the turbulence of a quarter century of post-communist economic reforms, the small town of Slupsk doesn’t quite fit that profile. Like other parts of western Poland, it is less religious and more liberal than the east.
Biedron describes it as a place where “everyone is a refugee,” alluding to its turbulent history. The city was German and known as Stolp until the end of the Second World War. After 1945, Poles, Ukrainians and others from the East were settled in Slupsk, replacing relocated Germans and murdered Jews.
Situated about 20 kilometers from the Baltic Sea, the city is green and compact and Biedron’s administration has started to get rid of cars in the old town to make space for a pedestrian area with benches, cafes and restaurants. To combat urban flight, businesses in the city center get property tax breaks to encourage them to stay.
Biedron may be popular in his hometown, but a national path would not be without obstacles. For one thing, the liberal opposition is fragmented with no party coming close to Law and Justice in the polls.
Biedron himself has refused to entertain speculations about running for national office, saying he is content where he is. Still, the government’s right-wing policies have made Biedron more visible on the national stage as a voice of opposition.
“What’s now being served to us is a political roller-coaster ride with no safety restraints and we don’t know where it will end,” he recently told the news portal onet.pl.
He does allow that the ruling party’s popular and generous social promises, especially a subsidy paid to families with many children, have some merit. And in his town, he invests in policies for the poor, such as social housing.
Still, Biedron is politically very far removed from the Law and Justice Party. And he is no fan of the Civic Platform Party that ruled Poland from 2007-2015, either.
Civic Platform and its leader, then-prime minister Donald Tusk — now European Council president — balked at pushing through socially liberal reforms, afraid of alienating more conservative voters and the powerful Roman Catholic Church.
“Donald Tusk also promised a law on civil partnerships and [said] that he wouldn’t kneel in front of priests. What came of that? Nothing,” Biedron told onet.pl.
That distance from the country’s two leading parties makes Biedron something of a fresh voice in Polish politics. But, for now, he says his political ambitions are limited to Slupsk.
“In the parliament, I used to discuss ideology. But as a mayor, I marry couples, I see people cry. I am there when they get born and die,” Biedron said. “I have to be pragmatic.”
by Claudia Ciobanu
Source – Politico