Tens of thousands of Poles took part in an opposition protest in Warsaw on Saturday, accusing the ruling nationalist Law and Justice party of curtailing freedoms in the biggest show of popular discontent so far this year.
As many as 90,000 marched chanting “We will defend democracy” and “Here is European Poland!” in the three-hour protest, organised by the opposition Civic Platform party, in conjunction with other opposition groups.
The protest came just days after an opinion poll showed support for the centre-right Civic Platform overtaking that of Law and Justice for the first time since parliamentary elections in 2015.
The poll by Kantar Millward Brown put support Civic Platform on 31 per cent, with the ruling party on 29 per cent.
Warsaw’s city hall, controlled by Civic Platform, estimated the crowd at 90,000-plus, while police put the figure at 12,000.
Visiting the Szczecin shipyard ahead of the march, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the Law and Justice leader, insisted that “freedom exists in Poland”.
“Only someone who doesn’t see reality can question this,” he said. “There is freedom. We provide it. Everyone can march where they want and vote for whom they want.”.
He added that the previous government — headed by Civic Platform — was a “time of fear”.
Polish opponents of the government and EU authorities have accused the Law and Justice government of undermining democratic checks and balances by weakening the constitutional court and taking control of public media.
Grzegorz Schetyna, the Civic Platform leader, told the crowd: “We will look for what unites us, not what divides us. Together we will win.”
Law and Justice sparked new concerns in western EU capitals earlier this week when Andrzej Duda, the president, proposed a referendum on changing the constitution next year, on the 100th anniversary of Polish independence.
Speaking on Poland’s Constitution Day on May 3, Mr Duda said “the nation should speak out on what changes to the system it wants in the future and what laws and freedoms should be strongly emphasised.”
The proposals carried echoes of the new constitution introduced in 2011 by Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party, whose leader Viktor Orban has declared he is building an “illiberal” democracy in the country.
Mr Schetyna on Saturday told protesters, “We won’t let anyone change the constitution.”
The Saturday protest also involved teachers angry over education reforms being pushed through by the Law and Justice government including a new curriculum that critics say will erode standards and aims to inculcate young people with conservative, Catholic values
Slawomir Broniarz, president of the Polish Teachers’ Union, called on the government to accept demands for a referendum on the education reforms, after a petition gathered 910,558 signatures. The government has said the petition is out of time, as legislation has already been adopted.
“Don’t let them tell us that we are too late with this application,” Mr Broniarz said. “We were protesting since the beginning.”