Hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated this Sunday in Warsaw in the so-called “Million Hearts March” against the policy of the ultraconservative Law and Justice party (PiS), which has governed Poland since 2019. The protest took place two weeks before the parliamentary elections on October 15, elections that, according to the calling party, the liberal Civic Platform, can decide the future of this country in the European Union and its democratic position.
Opinion polls suggest PiS will win the election, but could struggle to form a majority amid discontent among some of the population over the rising cost of living and concerns about the erosion of democracy.
Nearly a million people attended the demonstration, the largest recorded in the capital if the attendance figure, which was provided to the Polish agency PAP by the spokesperson for the Warsaw City Council, Jakub Leduchowski, is true.
Public broadcaster TVP, which independent media observers say has become a government mouthpiece, has reduced the number of attendees to 100,000, citing police sources.
On the other hand, the online news channel onet.pl estimates that between 600,000 and 800,000 citizens have taken to the streets of Warsaw. “The entire four-kilometer march route is full of participants, including the side streets. According to surveillance records, we estimate that there are around one million people,” confirmed Monika Beuth, spokesperson for the council, who also assured that no incidents have been recorded.
Some protesters have carried banners reading “PiSexit” (PiS Exit) or “The cat can stay,” in reference to the pet of PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
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The opposition hopes that the march will encourage voters to participate in the elections, thus giving it the opportunity to boost voting intentions. “A big change is coming. This is a sign of the rebirth of Poland,” declared the leader of Civic Platform, Donald Tusk, to the crowd gathered in a central square in Warsaw, where many people waved Polish and European Union flags.
Tusk, a former prime minister and former president of the European Council, has said PiS could aim to take Poland out of the EU, something the party denies, and has framed the elections as crucial for minority and women’s rights. “Nothing will stop this force anymore (…) Let no one in the ranks of power get their hopes up. This change is inevitable, for the better,” Tusk proclaimed as he opened the march.
The PiS, in power since 2019, leads the polls ahead of the elections on the 15th with a clear margin, as the polls predict 38% of the votes, although it could need a partner – such as the far-right Confederation party – to form Government. Civic Platform is in second place in the polls, with 30% voting intention.
The ultra-conservative ruling party has campaigned on a promise to keep migrants out of Poland, saying it was key to national security, and to continue funneling money to families and the elderly. “I want to be free, to be in the EU; I want to have a voice and a vote, I want to have free courts,” said Hanna Chaciewicz, a 59-year-old dentist from Otwock, a city on the outskirts of Warsaw, during the march.
PiS denies Western criticism that it has subverted democratic norms and says its reforms of the judiciary aim to make the country fairer and free of vestiges of communism. But it has yet to access billions of euros in European pandemic recovery funds, which Brussels has withheld.
“Everyone is investing in jobs, in fighting the climate catastrophe. And we have been denied this money because someone has decided to destroy democracy in Poland,” the mayor of Warsaw, Rafal Trzaskowski, a senior member of Civic Platform, complained to those attending the rally.
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