Tens of thousands of people marched across downtown Warsaw on Saturday (4 June) protesting against government policies they believe threaten democracy, as the country marked the 27th anniversary of its first taste of electoral freedom.
Former presidents Bronisław Komorowski and Aleksander Kwaśniewski led the crowd — of around 50,000 people according to city or 10,000 according to police — as they chanted “Freedom! Equality! Democracy!” and waved EU and Polish flags.
“I’m against this government. I didn’t vote for it. I believe they’re breaking laws,” said Dorota Leszkowicz, a 61-year-old retired psychologist who turned up dressed in the EU member state’s red and white colours.
Poles also massed in several other cities to mark the semi-free elections on 4 June 1989 – Poland’s first dose of democracy that heralded the peaceful demise of Communist rule.
The rallies were organised by the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), a movement that sprung up in opposition to the policies adopted by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party that came into power in November.
The reforms, which give the government more control over the media and other institutions while weakening the constitutional court, have alarmed critics at home and abroad.
“Basically, it’s the PiS takeover of everything,” said Bethann Hubert, a 52-year-old American living in Warsaw and a member of the KOD expat group.
“It’s scary to watch,” she told AFP at the Warsaw rally.
The government reforms have also drawn concern from the European Union, which on Wednesday issued an unprecedented warning to the ruling party to roll back its overhaul of the top Polish court or risk sanctions.
Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski downplayed the EU warning, calling it “a suggestion, which doesn’t oblige us to do anything”.
PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński told a party congress on Saturday that “Poles have a right to change”.
“They have the right to build (the country) anew and make it better, more advantageous for the clear majority of Poles,” he said.
In January, the European Commission launched a probe into whether Poland’s reforms violate EU democracy rules and merit punitive measures according to the “rule of law” mechanism Brussels introduced in 2014.
If found at fault, a country can be stripped of its EU voting rights – the so-called “nuclear option” – but the procedure has never been used before.