Polish Opposition Hails Biggest Protest Since Communist Era

  • Concerns about Poland's democracy mount amid row over court
  • Ruling party has clashed with EU partners since taking power

Poland’s opposition parties staged what they said was the biggest anti-government protest since communism collapsed 26 years ago.

People pray during demonstrations.
People pray during demonstrations.
Photographer: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images

Municipal authorities said 240,000 people took part in Saturday’s march through central Warsaw, many waving Poland’s red-and-white flags and the European Union’s blue-and-gold emblems. They protested against Law & Justice’s five-month-old government, which has fallen out with EU partners amid concern about rule-of-law. The cabinet’s push to consolidate power triggered the sovereign’s first credit-rating downgrade this year.

“Turning our back on the EU means a road to the east, and we won’t agree to another iron curtain,” Grzegorz Schetyna, the leader of the top opposition party Civic Platform, said in Warsaw. Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz, a leader of the opposition Nowoczesna party, said: “Poland’s place is in the heart of Europe.”

The government has rattled EU partners since it took office in November, with critics saying its policies are eroding democracy in the bloc’s largest ex-communist nation. The latest flashpoint is a standoff over Poland’s highest court, which was overhauled by Law & Justice, drawing international condemnation. The action spurred the EU to open its first probe into a member nation’s democracy.

Credit Outlook

Saturday’s demonstration, under the slogan “We Are and We Will Be in the EU,” joined opposition parties and the Committee for the Defense of Democracy, a movement that started to protest the court changes. The protesters say the dispute may discredit Poland and could have economic implications for the nation as the largest beneficiary of the EU budget. Poland is halfway through a 230 billion-euro ($262.3 billion) aid package.

Protesters against the government.
Protesters against the government.
Photographer: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images

Polish assets have suffered since S&P Global Markets unexpectedly cut its view of the nation’s creditworthiness in January, citing concern over the independence of key institutions, including the constitutional court, central bank and public media. Moody’s Investors Service is due to review its stance on Poland on May 13.
 
The government has stuck to its stance on the court. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head of Law & Justice, has rejected the opinions of the EU and the Venice Commission, an international democracy watchdog. The police, whose leadership was overhauled by the ruling party, said the demonstration in Warsaw drew between 30,000 and 40,000.

EU ‘Rag’

About 78 percent of Poles backed EU membership in a 2003 referendum, when just under two-thirds of eligible voters turned out, higher than in any other national vote since communism was abandoned in 1989. Support hasn’t waned in the country of 38 million people, with 81 percent approval in a February survey by the polling company CBOS. That compares with a high of 89 percent in 2014 and a low of 73 percent a year earlier.

Mateusz Kijowski, the leader of the organizing committee, asked protesters to bring EU flags to show solidarity with the bloc. Flying the insignia also shows opposition to the ruling party, which removed the flag from the prime minister’s office and pledged to tend after “national interests.” Krystyna Pawlowicz, a Law & Justice lawmaker, said “displaying the Polish flag with some rag offends our national symbols.”

Poland’s Dignity

On Saturday, as protesters marched in Warsaw, Kaczynski for the first time spoke to Poles via an Internet chat, broadcast by the state-owned television. He said the protest “isn’t a big deal,” adding that “democracy in Poland isn’t under any threat.”

Earlier this week, Kaczynski said that being in the EU doesn’t mean that Poland will accept all the bloc’s policies, including those that threaten national security. In reaction to international criticism, he blamed “foreign institutions” for seeking to undermine Polish “dignity.” Still, he said that being European means being in the EU, condemning as “political pests” those who advocate a referendum about exiting. 

“It seems that Kaczynski has realized the majority of Poles unfortunately want to be in the EU and he tried to anticipate our protest,” said Tomasz Siemoniak, a leader of the opposition Civic Platform party and a former defense minister. “At the same time, Kaczynski’s vision of Poland’s presence in the EU has nothing to do with what the people decided to join 12 years ago.”

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