Hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated in Warsaw on Sunday in a massive show of opposition to the ruling party ahead of October’s general election, bringing back memories of Poland’s rejection of Communist Party rule decades earlier.
Organized by the government’s political rivals, the event sought to deny Poland’s staunchly conservative Law and Justice party its claims to the legacy of Solidarity, the trade union movement that led the struggle against the communist regime imposed by Moscow after World War II.
Large protests also took place in Krakow, Szczecin and other large cities where the opposition is strong in urban areas but struggling in the countryside.
Law and Justice, which denigrates its opponents as communists and Russian agents, recently pushed legislation through parliament to create a commission to investigate Russian influence and bar individuals from public office for up to 10 years if they are found to have succumbed to it.
The opposition denounced the move as a ploy to stigmatize Russia and exclude them from running in October for politicians critical of the ruling party.
The United States and the European Union have expressed concern about the law, known as “Lex Tusk”, because one of its targets is expected to be Donald Tusk, the leader of the main opposition party.
Addressing protesters in Warsaw’s Old Town on Sunday, Tusk, the leader of the Civic Platform, accused Law and Justice of abolishing democracy and distancing Poland from Europe, and compared the upcoming election to the vote on June 4, 1989 – the country’s first free election since 1945 – which the movement won. Solidarity and completed the end of communist rule.
“The slogan of solidarity was ‘We won’t divide or destroy,’” Tusk said, adding that the “great hope” of enemies of democracy past and present “was our despair, and their strength was our impotence”.
“It’s over… Today, all of us in Poland, we all see, we all hear Poland hasn’t yet perished, we will achieve victory,” he added, referring to the opening line of the Polish national anthem.
Other speakers included Lech Walesa, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Solidarity leader who, after the collapse of communism, became Poland’s first freely elected president after the war and later denounced by Law and Justice as a communist-era secret police agent.
The Warsaw City Council, which controlled by the government’s political opponents, estimated the turnout at around half a million.
This was almost certainly an exaggeration, but even factoring in swelled numbers, Sunday’s march appeared to be the largest anti-government demonstration since street protests in the 1980s in support of Solidarity.
TVP Info, a state-controlled news channel, reported that only 100,000 people had turned out at most and its minimal coverage of the rally focused on insults expressed by some of the protesters, a tactic often used by pro-government media to portray critics of the law and justice as loathsome infidels who oppose the Roman Catholic Church.
As huge crowds gathered Sunday afternoon, TVP Info led its newscast with a report on the “National Housewives Farmers’ Circle Show,” a low-attend event organized by the Department of Agriculture.
Law and Justice, which has been in power since 2015, has a significant advantage in this year’s parliamentary elections because of its tight control of state TV and radio, and its backing by a slew of nominally independent outlets that rely on state funding.
Most opinion polls predict that it will win more seats than the civilian platform, but it will fail to achieve a majority and may face a problem in forming a stable government.