By VANESSA GERA
WARSAW, Poland (AP) — An enormous anti-government march took place in Poland’s capital Sunday, with citizens traveling from across the country to voice their anger at a right-wing administration that has eroded democratic norms and created fears the nation is following Hungary and Turkey down the path to autocracy.
The local government in Warsaw estimated that 500,000 people joined the march, which was led by the opposition party to which the city’s mayor, Rafal Trzaskowski, belongs. It was not possible to verify that figure.
Large crowds gathered in Krakow and other cities across the nation of 38 million, showing frustration with a government that critics accuse of violating the constitution and eroding fundamental rights in Poland, a country long hailed as model of peaceful and democratic change.
Former President Lech Walesa, the leader of the Solidarity movement that played a historic role in toppling communism in Poland, stood on a stage with the leader of the opposition Civic Platform party, former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk.
The crowd cheered on the two men, both of whom are reviled by the ruling Law and Justice party led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and at times chanted “Democracy!” and “Constitution!”
Tusk had called on Poles to march with him for the sake of the nation’s future — a message that resonated for Radek Tusinski, 49, who rallied with his wife and two young children. A handmade sign reading “I cannot give up freedom” was attached to their baby stroller.
Tuskinski said he worries about the creeping return of an authoritarian system similar to what he remembers from his childhood.
“We want a free country for our children,” he said.
Supporters of the march have warned that the election might be the nation’s last chance to stop the erosion of democracy under the ruling party, Law and Justice, amid growing fears that the fall election might not be fair.
However, critics have warned for years that the party is reversing many of the achievements made since Poland emerged from communist rule in 1989.
Even the United States government has intervened at times when it felt the government was eroding press freedom and academic freedom in the area of Holocaust research.
Critics point mainly to the party’s step-by-step takeover of the judiciary and media. It uses state media for heavy-handed propaganda to tarnish opponents. Law and Justice also tapped into animosity against minorities, particularly LGBTQ+ people, whose struggle for rights the party depicts as a threat to families and national identity. A clampdown on abortion rights has triggered mass protests.
Critics fear that party could eventually force the country to leave the European Union, a 27-member union founded on democratic ideals.
March participants carried EU and Polish flags, with some also holding up rainbow flags.
Some also voiced anger at the double-digit inflation in the county. The government blames Russia’s war in Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic, but economists say its spending policies have accelerated spiraling prices.
Barbara Dec, 26, and her grandmother left their hometown of Zielona Gora at 4:30 a.m. and traveled seven hours on a bus organized by Civic Platform to protest. They planned to return home immediately after the Warsaw event.
Dec held up a cardboard sign that read, “I am afraid to have children in Poland.”
“Women have lost the right to have an abortion even when the fetus is terminally ill, and some women have died,” she explained. “And I am also afraid I couldn’t manage financially.”
The march was held on the 34th anniversary of the first partly free elections, a democratic breakthrough in the toppling of communism across Eastern Europe. It was seen as a test for Tusk’s Civic Platform, a centrist and pro-European party which has trailed behind Law and Justice in polls.
However, the passage of a controversial law last month appeared to mobilize greater support for Tusk. Poland is expected to hold a general election in October, though a date has not yet been set.
The law allows for the creation of a commission to investigate Russian influence in Poland. Critics argue that the commission would have unconstitutional powers, including the capacity to exclude officials from public life for a decade. They fear it will be used by the ruling party to remove Tusk and other opponents from public life.
Amid uproar in Poland and criticism from the U.S. and the EU, President Andrzej Duda, who signed the law on May 29, proposed amendments to it on Friday. In the meantime, the law will take effect with no guarantees lawmakers in parliament will weaken the commission’s powers.
Some Poles say it could come to resemble the investigations of Joseph McCarthy, the U.S. senator whose anti-communist campaign in the early 1950s led to hysteria and political persecution.
That fear was underlined last weekend when the Kaczynski, the ruling party leader, was asked by a reporter if he still had trust in the defense minister in connection with a Russian missile that fell in Poland in December.
“I am forced … to view you as a representative of the Kremlin,” he replied. “Because only the Kremlin wants this man to stop being the minister of national defense.”
The press freedom group Reporters Without Borders expressed concerns that the commission might be used to “wage a witch-hunt against journalists” and “could serve as a new weapon for this type of attack, in which doubt is cast on journalists’ probity in an attempt to smear their reputation.”
Tusk, who is also a former EU council president, had called for the march weeks ago, urging people to demonstrate “against high prices, theft and lies, for free elections and a democratic, European Poland.”
Initially some opposition figures planned to stay away. But after Duda signed the law, other opposition leaders announced they would join in.
Law and Justice sought to discourage participation in the march with a video spot using Auschwitz as a theme — drawing criticism from the state museum that preserves the site of the Nazi German death camp.