WARSAW, Poland (AP) — A surprise in Poland's election campaign has been the quick rise of a left-wing party that supports gay rights, liberalizing abortion laws, and the greater separation of church and state — a sign of growing secularization in this conservative, Roman Catholic country.
Janusz Palikot, the leader of the left-wing Palikot's Movement, told The Associated Press Friday that the time has come for his brand of liberalization as the country grows more secular.
The new party has risen to third place in opinion polls ahead of Sunday's parliamentary election with 10 percent projected support — giving it a chance of a greater voice in political life, and possibly even a shot at joining the next government.
"With 10 percent, I'm not sure, but with 15 percent there can't be a coalition without me," said Palikot, a lawmaker who broke away from Prime Minister Donald Tusk's Civic Platform party last year.
Ahead in the polls are the centrist Civic Platform — expected to win the most votes — and the conservative Law and Justice party of Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
In just a few weeks, the new party has overtaken the Democratic Left Alliance, a long-established left-wing party whose base Palikot seems to be poaching, along with the agrarian Polish People's Party, the current junior coalition partner.
His growing popularity appears due to frustration with the established parties, as well as growing support for gay rights and other liberal causes. Palikot says much of his support comes from younger Poles being mobilized to vote for the first time.
In an interview at his home in Warsaw, the 46-year-old laid out his vision, which centers on bringing greater liberalization to both social and economic spheres. He said he wants to trim state regulations that stifle businesses and delegalize a range of things — including marijuana — that he believes erode at individual freedoms.
Some of his views are radical by the standards of Poland, a country where abortion remains illegal in most cases, where there is no legal recognition of gay partnerships and where the Catholic church still enjoys great influence in public life.
Palikot said if his group wins a good showing in parliament, his first step will be to push for the removal of a Christian cross that hangs in the assembly hall of the Sejm, the lower house — an opening move in a drive for greater separation of church and state.
The church is "absolutely too powerful," adding to social hypocrisy, Palikot said. He noted that while most people claim they are Catholic, recent studies have shown that most do not attend church regularly.
"It's only an illusion that Poland is so extremely Catholic," he said. "We want to remove religion from the public spaces."
He also opposes laws making it a crime to insult the president or a person's religion.
Palikot — a former wine and vodka producer — has something of a reputation for flamboyancy. He has used eccentric antics to make his points, including appearing at a press conference holding a pistol in one hand and a plastic penis in the other in 2007 to protest a case of sexual harassment by police.
Palikot defended that performance, saying Friday that it successfully drew attention to the case of an officer who put a gun to a woman's head and his penis in her mouth during interrogation.
Palikot said the attention he brought to the case lead to the policeman being imprisoned, the police chief fired, and reforms being implemented to fight police abuse, including the installation of video cameras in interrogation rooms.
"The vibrator was a very important story. Absolutely," he said. "And I would be ready to do this again in a similar situation."