Tensions mount ahead of Poland’s centenary march

File photo. Polish nationalists light flares as they take part in the March of Independence 2017 under the slogan 'We want God' as part of Polish Independence Day celebrations in Warsaw, Poland, 11 November 2017. [Radek Pietruszka/EPA/EFE]

Poland’s president and prime minister on Wednesday (7 November) called a march in Warsaw to mark the country’s independence day centenary this weekend, hours after the capital’s mayor banned one planned by far-right groups for the occasion.

Those groups have vowed to appeal the ban in court and to go ahead with their march on Sunday regardless.

The developments reflect the chaos surrounding independence day preparations by the EU country’s right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) government, just days ahead of Poland’s centenary coinciding with the World War I armistice.

“It was decided that… there will be a joint white-red march that will be an event organised by the state,” presidential spokesman Blazej Spychalski told reporters in Warsaw. White and red are Poland’s national colours.

“We invite all Poles to take part,” he added.

The announcement came following hastily called talks between President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

EU President and former Polish prime minister Donald Tusk — a critic of the PiS government — will nevertheless attend official ceremonies Sunday in Warsaw led by Duda, an ally of the government.

‘Aggressive nationalism’

Warsaw Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, an ally of Tusk, on Wednesday banned the centenary march by far-right groups, insisting it was inappropriate and unsafe.

Last month Poland’s governing nationalists came out on top in regional elections, but lost to opposition centrists in mayoral races in large cities including the capital Warsaw.

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Poland’s governing nationalists came out on top in regional elections Sunday (21 October), but were losing to opposition centrists in mayoral races in large cities including the capital Warsaw, exit polls showed.

Last year’s far-right march drew international outrage after some of its participants shouted racist and anti-immigrant slogans.

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Poland’s justice minister announced an investigation on Monday (27 November) after mocked-up pictures of opposition MEPs allegedly hanging on gallows were unfurled at a far-right demonstration on Saturday.

Their annual march is organised in part by the National Radical Camp (ONR), a group with roots stretching back to an anti-semitic pre-World War II movement.

Gronkiewicz-Waltz told reporters in Warsaw she had not received assurances from the PiS government regarding a police presence to guarantee the event’s security.

“Warsaw has suffered enough due to aggressive nationalism” she added, referring to Nazi Germany’s attacks that nearly wiped Warsaw off the map during World War II.

“This should not be the way to mark one century of the independence of the Polish state, hence my decision to ban the march,” Gronkiewicz-Waltz said.

The organisers have 24 hours to appeal the ban in court but spokesman Mateusz Marzoch vowed to defy the ban “regardless”, labelling the mayor’s words “reprehensible, shameful and… arrogant”.

Tensions with EU

Before the ban, organisers said they had expected between 100,000 and 250,000 participants after last year’s march drew around 60,000.

While many participants denied sympathy for extreme right groups, the event also drew representatives of far-right parties from Britain, Hungary, Italy and Slovakia.

Duda and PiS leaders pulled out of the march last week after officials failed to convince its organisers to carry only Polish flags this year in a bid to avoid racist overtones.

Since winning office in 2015, the PiS government has put Poland on a collision course with the European Union. It has introduced a string of controversial judicial reforms that Brussels has warned pose a threat to judicial independence, the rule of law and ultimately to democracy.

Rule of law dispute with Poland simmers on, with no end in sight

Despite expectations to the contrary, the European Commission decided not to refer the Polish Supreme Court law to the EU’s top court on Wednesday (19 September), following a meeting of EU affairs ministers that heard Poland’s arguments on Tuesday. But it does not necessarily mean a detente is on the cards.

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