“The truth is on the march and nothing will stop it.” So thought Emile Zola. One man’s truth is another man’s misunderstanding, but it is true that in Poland at present nothing seems likely to stop the march of protest against the government. On Saturday Warsaw saw one of the largest marches of recent times protesting against the government, with a much smaller counter-march by supporters of the government.
The larger march, was organised by the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD) and opposition parties Civic Platform (PO), Novoczesna and the Polish People’s Party under the slogan “We are and will remain in Europe.” Leaving aside the fact the Law and Justice (PiS) government is not (yet) seeking to overturn geography, the marchers were demonstrating against what they consider to be a violation by the government of democratic and European values. This was the latest of a number of protests prompted by reforms of the Constitutional Tribunal (see Constitution), public media, civil service appointments, and new surveillance laws.
The counter-protest, was staged by nationalists, conservatives and religious organisations, under the slogan “Poland Have Courage.” This group was marching to urge PiS not to be intimidated by those whom government supporters routinely describe as cliques who cannot accept the loss of the privileges they enjoyed under the previous (PO) government.
Inevitably, there was disagreement about the numbers marching. Police said that 45,000 marched in the anti-government demonstration while the Warsaw City Hall said there were 240,000. The better estimate seems around 200,000. Police put numbers attending the counter demonstration at 4,500 with the City Hall saying 2,500. So, in terms of numbers, it was a clear victory for the anti-government marchers.
Protesters carried anti-government slogans, EU flags, Polish flags, and the flags of other countries, reflecting the presence of non-Poles among the marchers to emphasise Poland’s proper place within the EU, and the fact that both the EU and the Venice Commission have now become interested in the state of democracy in Poland. The European Commission has launched an inquiry into whether Poland is upholding the principle of the rule of law and whether the recent legislation violates EU standards.
Grzegorz Schetyna, head of opposition party PO, told crowds: “We won’t allow a nightmare of authoritarian rule. We won’t allow the violation of democracy, the violation of the rule of law, violation of the constitution.” Conversely, PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński rejected claims that the party was opposed to the EU, saying: “We want to be members of the European Union because we want to have an impact on the fate of Europe.” Robert Winnicki, a member of parliament and the head of the National Movement (Ruch Narodowy), said the counter-march was to oppose to KOD, the “dictates of Brussels”, and any move to accept refugees in Poland. He said a “leftist-liberal gangrene is destroying Europe. It’s a multicultural cancer.” For good measure he added: “The EU tries to limit Poland’s sovereignty and interfere with what’s happening in Poland. There are forces in Poland whom we call collaborators, who collaborate with Brussels.”
From the outset, PiS supporters have accused Polish opposition politicians of inciting Brussels to interfere in Poland’s domestic affairs and certainly the more internationalist nature of PO meant that it was able to make its case abroad after the general election more easily than PiS. Nor is PO entirely blameless for what has followed: much of the shenanigans are part of the normal political to and fro in Poland albeit that PiS has gone further, more quickly, than previous governments. Be that as it may, speaking to internet users on Saturday, Kaczyński said the protests in Warsaw “were not a great worry” and insisted: “In Poland there is not the slightest danger to democracy, to civic freedoms and human rights.”
The marches appear to have passed off without incident, the police were friendly and apart from the odd word and scowl from the occasional passer-by, the KOD tent opposite the prime minister’s office was left in peace. When it comes to the streets at least, democracy and civic freedoms have been respected. Whether these protests will have any effect on the government remains to be seen, but given plans to make changes to the electoral system, the season of protests will not be ending soon. It’s a pity, perhaps, that the marchers weren’t as enthusiastic about marching to the ballot boxes last October because, when all is said and done, the turn-out was only just over 50 per cent. enabling PiS to win the first majority in the post-communist era.