WARSAW, POLAND - A former lawmaker who is openly gay launched a progressive party in Poland ahead of two elections this year, presenting a program Sunday that includes phasing out coal production and liberalizing the abortion laws.
At an inaugural convention in Warsaw, Robert Biedron announced the new party's name, Wiosna, or "Spring,'' and vowed to work to unify the bitterly divided country.
"The last years were cold and gloomy. Instead of conversations we got constant conflict; instead of the good of the community, party interests,'' Biedron told a crowd of thousands. "Let this finally come to an end. We need a spring that will renew this gloomy landscape.''
Biedron, 42, has long been the hope of many progressive Poles, thanks to his charisma, energy and relative youth. He got his start in politics as an LGBT activist during the 1990s and became the first openly gay member of parliament in 2011. He most recently served as mayor of Slupsk in northern Poland.
The left-wing political scene in Poland since communism fell in 1989 has been dominated by ex-communists who are now aging and in some cases, have been discredited by corruption scandals. Many of those hoping for a party focused on progressive mainstays like green energy and women's rights eagerly anticipated the launch of Biedron's party.
It remains unclear how much support he will be able to muster in an era when right-wing nationalists have gained popularity in Europe. Some of Biedron's positions also could prove unpopular.
In a country heavily dependent on coal for jobs and energy, he said he would focus on fighting the associated heavy smog by phasing out coal production by 2035.
Biedron's unapologetically secular program included ending the teaching of religion from public schools, a direct challenge to the Catholic Church that holds great sway in Poland.
Biedron said he wants to give women in the country with Europe's most restrictive abortion laws the right to terminate pregnancies to the 12th week. Some conservatives already have accused him of trying to make Poland a "civilization of death.''
"Poland is a woman,'' Biedron said. "Her suffering is our suffering.''
At the convention, Biedron presented himself as an alternative both to ruling right-wing ruling party, Law and Justice, and the main opposition party, the centrist pro-business Civic Platform party. He portrayed the new party as a chance for change after years of hostility between the two political camps.
Civil Platform governed from 2007-2015 and oversaw fast economic growth, but Biedron faulted it for ignoring growing economic equality and struggles of many Poles.
He said his party would raise the minimum pension to 1,600 zlotys ($425) per month, noting some older Poles now get only 1,000 zlotys ($270).
Some activists and critics of the Law and Justice-led government have accused Biedron of further weakening an already divided opposition with poor prospects of unseating the ruling party.
Biedron told the convention crowd he would continue the legacy of Gdansk Mayor Pawel Adamowicz, a supporter of women and minorities who was fatally stabbed in mid-January amid the heavy ideological animosity.
"We do not want any more of this Polish-Polish war,'' Biedron declared.
However, he also vowed to form a Justice and Reconciliation Commission to hold Law and Justice's leader and others to account for allegedly violating ``the freedom and rights enshrined in the constitution.''
Among those at the convention was 18-year-old Jakub Przybysz. He said he liked Biedron's goal of separating church and state and legalizing same-sex partnerships that confer some rights. But he sees Biedron confronting an uphill battle.
"Perhaps the time hasn't come for this yet, but even the smallest change in this direction would be good,'' Przybysz said.