By Rachel Savage
LONDON, May 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The rise of far-right parties across the European Union is a threat to LGBT+ rights, activists said, as voters prepared for elections this week after a campaign characterised by homophobic rhetoric in some countries.
An alliance of far-right parties launched by Italy's deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, who said last year he would "defend the natural family" from same-sex couples, is forecast to become the fourth-biggest in the European Parliament.
While the main centre-right and centre-left political groups are likely to stay the largest alliances in the parliament, they are both predicted to lose seats in the elections, which take place from Thursday to Sunday.
"Politicians are using (LGBT+ rights) as a wedge issue," said Evelyne Paradis, executive director of ILGA-Europe, a regional LGBT+ rights advocacy group.
"The wave of populism... even when it's not targeting the LGBTI community specifically, contributes to and fuels a toxic, divisive social climate," she said. "In many countries we see an increase in violence and LGBT-phobic crimes."
Many campaigners cited Poland's ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, which has characterised gay and transgender rights as a danger to children and traditional values, saying LGBT+ people had replaced migrants as a scapegoat to rally their base.
LGBT+ rights became a Polish political issue after the opposition party mayor of Warsaw signed a pro-LGBT+ pledge in February that included introducing sex education based on World Health Organization standards.
The leader of the PiS, which is expected to increase its share of the vote in this week's election, has said gay and trans rights and the WHO standards constitute foreign values that pose "a real threat to our identity, to our nation".
Some Polish towns have passed regulations to reject "LGBT ideology".
No one at the PiS party could be reached for comment on Wednesday.
"A few years ago there were migrants who carried parasites, now (it's) LGBT+ people," said Elzbieta Podlesna, a Polish activist who was arrested on May 7th for putting up posters of the Virgin Mary with a rainbow halo.
"This is governing by fear, governing by hatred and governing by looking for a scapegoat."
Salvini's European Alliance for People and Nations (EAPN) is set to more than double far-right representation in the 751-seat parliament, to more than 80 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), according to Europe Elects, a polling website.
As well as Salvini's League party, it includes Alternative for Germany (AfD), the Finns Party and the Danish People's Party.
However, LGBT+ activists said they were heartened by increasing numbers of prospective MEPs supporting their cause.
Almost 1,500 candidates have signed ILGA-Europe's ComeOut, a pledge to advance LGBT+ rights, compared to 1,202 before the last elections in 2014.
More than 280 signatories came from Poland, which elects 51 MEPs, followed by France and Germany.
Only one Polish MEP is among the public members of the outgoing European Parliament's Intergroup on LGBTI Rights, according to membership data.
For some campaigners, rising homophobic and transphobic rhetoric from far-right politicians is linked to a wider attack on human rights and the European Union.
"This should absolutely serve as wakeup call that the values of Europe are under threat and we have to defend them," said Adam Long of the National LGBT Federation, an Irish advocacy group.
"LGBT rights are like the canary in the coal mine."
(Reporting by Rachel Savage @rachelmsavage; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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