The possibility of a power shift in Poland following Sunday’s pivotal election is a glimmer of hope for LGBTQIA+ campaigners in a region where gay and transgender rights have been under attack in recent years.

Poland’s ruling nationalists appeared on Monday to have lost their parliamentary majority, exit polls and partial results showed, potentially opening the way for a government formed by a liberal opposition that wants to legalise same-sex civil unions.

“After eight years of hate against people like me, the nightmare is over,” Bart Staszewski, a Polish LGBTQIA+ rights activist, told Openly by phone.

Poland and Hungary’s nationalist governments have railed against “LGBT ideology” in recent years, and the outcome of a Sept. 30 election in Slovakia fuelled concerns about a worsening climate for LGBTQIA+ people in Central and Eastern Europe.

During his election campaign, former Prime Minister Robert Fico, who is expected to lead the country’s new coalition government, said adoption by same-sex couples was a “perversion” and that “gender ideology” in schools was “unacceptable”.

But while hailing the outcome of Sunday’s election as a potential turning point on LGBTQIA+ issues in the region, rights advocates warned it could be an uphill struggle to reverse policies implemented by Poland’s conservative nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party.

One of the first LGBTQIA-friendly policies the opposition pledged to advance if elected was the legalisation of same-sex civil unions, a right that already exists in most fellow European Union countries.

That could prove a tall order, because even if the opposition seals a majority, the PiS party’s Andrzej Duda holds the presidency and could use his presidential veto to block legislation, said Aleks Szczerbiak, a professor and the head of the politics department at Britain’s University of Sussex.

The constitutional tribunal could also strike it down, he added.

“The short answer is there’s going to be a dog-fight,” Szczerbiak said by phone.

He suggested it might be easier for the next government to find a way to reverse the last remaining “LGBT-free” zones – municipalities where authorities issued anti-LGBTQIA+ declarations, a move that prompted funding cuts by the EU.

“They will probably use a similar kind of a leverage as the EU institutions, which has been effective, to withdraw these resolutions. Money does talk,” Szczerbiak said.

‘Hostile environment’

Across the border in Slovakia, which like Poland is also mainly Roman Catholic, the results of last month’s parliamentary election highlighted a divide between most Eastern and Western European countries on LGBTQIA+ rights.

A recent survey from the Washington-based think-tank Pew Research Center showed that while eight out of 10 adults supported same-sex marriage in countries such as Sweden, the Netherlands and Spain, just 41% of adults in Poland and 31% in Hungary were in favour.

In Slovakia, like Poland, same-sex civil partnerships are not recognised and gay couples cannot adopt. Hungary allows gay civil unions but has effectively banned adoption by same-sex couples.

Although trans people in Slovakia are able to change legal gender, they are often subjected to forced sterilisation, which has left the nation number 30 out of 49 European countries in ILGA-Europe’s rainbow ranking of LGBTQIA+ rights.

The victory of Fico’s nationalist SMER-SSD party came as no surprise, said Agnieszka Kościańska, a professor of anthropology at Warsaw University.

Conservative politicians posing as defenders of “traditional values” in the region have sought to exploit the issue to play to their Catholic voter base, Kościańska said.

That “gives space in society for hate”, said Katrin Hugendubel at ILGA-Europe, adding that 2022 was the worst year for violence and discrimination against the community in the 12 years that the LGBTQIA+ rights group has run an annual review.

Slovakia’s LGBTQIA+ community is still reeling from a double murder a year ago outside a popular gay bar in the capital, Bratislava.

Local media at the time reported that the main suspect – the son of a former far-right politician – had posted messages with the phrases “hate crime” and “gay bar” hashtagged on Twitter.

“I still haven’t fully processed my emotions (about how) something like this could happen in Slovakia,” said Zara Kromoková, a trans woman, accusing politicians of having inflamed homophobic sentiment.

“We have a state that has created a hostile environment,” said Kromoková, who does counselling work with LGBTQIA+ people.

Signs of change?

While Poland’s PiS has targeted LGBTQIA+ rights ahead of previous elections, it focused on migration in the run-up to Sunday’s vote, and campaigners said there were signs that public opinion on issues such as same-sex unions was shifting.

“However, (that) is not because of the politicians but because of the shifts in people’s minds (about LGBTQ+ rights),” said EU lawmaker and former LGBTQIA+ activist Robert Biedroń.

Whether or not the result of the Polish election translates into greater equality, campaigners say the community’s freedoms – particularly with regards trans rights – remain under pressure in the region.

Earlier this year, the Hungarian government proposed a bill to exclude trans women from a women-only pension scheme, while Slovakia’s previous government introduced a bill that would make legal gender recognition impossible.

For Kromoková, the fact that Fico chose to attack trans people in his first speech after the election “speaks volumes”.

The former prime minister and his party were poised to sign a coalition agreement on Monday to form a new government with the centre-left HLAS and nationalist SNS parties.

Michaela Dénešová, an activist with Slovakian LGBTQIA+ rights NGO Inakost, said the change in government had put the community on alert.

“I’m sceptical about what might happen with the new government – let’s say the future is not pink,” Dénešová said.

Reporting by Joanna Gill.

GAY TIMES and Openly/Thomson Reuters Foundation are working together to deliver leading LGBTQIA+ news to a global audience.