By MONIKA SCISLOWSKA and VANESSA GERA
WARSAW, Poland – A transgendered woman and an openly gay man took seats in Poland’s newly elected parliament Tuesday, historic firsts that reflect profound social change in this traditionally Roman Catholic country.
Anna Grodzka, who was born a man but underwent a sex change, entered the assembly hall to warm greetings. Several men and women shook her hand, while one male lawmaker kissed her on the cheek. She was later introduced to Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who also shook her hand.
Grodzka sat next to Robert Biedron, an activist who is the first openly gay person elected to Poland’s parliament. Both belong to Palikot’s Movement, a new progressive party that became the third-largest party in parliament in the Oct. 9 election.
Grodzka said she felt overwhelmed by emotion as the session opened with the national anthem and when she later took her oath of office.
“It is a symbolic moment, but we owe this symbolism not to me but to the people of Poland because they made their choice,” Grodzka told The Associated Press. “They wanted a modern Poland, a Poland open to variety, a Poland where all people would feel good regardless of their differences. I cannot fail them in their expectations.”
Palikot’s Movement, led by outspoken entrepreneur-turned-politician Janusz Palikot, has vowed to push for liberal causes. It opposes the influence of the church in political life, promotes gay rights, and wants to challenge the country’s near-total ban on abortion.
Ewa Kopacz, the outgoing health minister, was then elected the new parliament speaker–the first time a woman was chosen for a post that the constitution defines as the second most powerful political position, after the prime minister.
The seventh parliament since communism fell was opened by a former speaker, Jozef Zych, who invoked words spoken by the late Polish pope, John Paul II, and acknowledged the presence of archbishops and other church leaders who observed from a balcony.
Zych also remembered the late President Lech Kaczynski and the lawmakers who died with him in a plane crash last year–words spoken as Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the late leader’s twin brother, sat solemnly with other conservative lawmakers.
Kaczynski heads the country’s largest opposition party, the nationalist Law and Justice party, which is riven by deep divisions and internal turmoil after expelling three key leaders on Friday who had called for a more democratic leadership style from Kaczynski.
Last month’s election gave Tusk, of the center-right Civic Platform party, a mandate for a second term. It was the first time since the end of communism 22 years ago that a government won a second consecutive term.
Tusk has remained popular thanks to an image he has cultivated of moderation and because the economy has grown impressively since Poland joined the European Union in 2004. It was the only EU country to avoid recession during the global crisis of 2008-09.
President Bronislaw Komorowski addressed the newly elected lawmakers, urging them to work together to maintain Poland’s strong economic performance as Europe faces a new financial crisis. He tasked the team with making Poland ready to adopt the EU currency, the euro, saying it was the “right path for the future development of Poland.
He called on lawmakers to trim bureaucracy, reform the judiciary and the health system and tackle state debt.
“We know that the state exists for the citizens, and not the other way around,” Komorowski said.
Lech Walesa, the hero of Poland’s anti-communist revolution and a former president, watched the proceedings from a balcony in the assembly hall.
Tusk, whose government formally resigned on Tuesday, plans to keep governing with his junior partner of the past four years, the conservative Polish People’s Party. He also plans to keep many of his key ministers in their jobs, including Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski and Finance Minister Jacek Rostowski.
Later in the day the president charged Tusk with forming a new government. His outgoing team will act as a caretaker government until the new one is formed and faces a confidence vote in parliament.
Tusk said he will build a new government soon, but gave no exact timeline. In any case, it should have no trouble winning a confidence vote because the new coalition enjoys a majority in the parliament.