WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland’s largest opposition party is leading a march on Sunday intended to mobilize voters against the right-wing government, which it accuses of eroding democracy and following Hungary and Turkey on the path of autocracy.
Donald Tusk, the country’s former prime minister, called on Poles to walk with him for the nation’s future. His party and security officials predicted that tens of thousands would join the protest.
Non-government-aligned media said it could be one of the biggest protests in post-communist Poland.
March supporters have warned that elections this fall could be the last chance to halt the erosion of democracy under the ruling Law and Justice party.
In power since 2015, Law and Justice has found a popular formula, combining higher social spending with socially conservative policies and support for the church in the majority Catholic nation.
However, critics have warned for years that it undoes many of the democratic achievements of the 1980s.
Even the United States government has stepped in at times when it felt the government was eroding freedom of the press and academic freedom in the area of Holocaust research.
Critics mainly point to the party’s gradual takeover of most of the justice system as well as its use of state media for heavy-handed propaganda used to tarnish opponents. He has also tapped into animosity against minorities, particularly LGBTQ people, whose fight for rights is described as a threat to families and national identity. A crackdown on abortion rights has sparked mass protests.
The march takes place on the 34th anniversary of the first democratic elections in 1989, after Poland emerged from decades of communist rule. It will be a test for Tusk’s Civic Platform, a centrist, pro-European party that trails in the polls behind Law and Justice but looks set to gain more support after a controversial law was passed.
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 ability to exclude officials from public life for a decade. They fear he will be used by the ruling party to remove Tusk and other opponents from public life.
Amid uproar in Poland and criticism from the US and EU, President Andrzej Duda, who signed the law on Monday, was already proposing amendments on Friday.
Some Poles say it could resemble the investigations of Joseph McCarthy, the US senator whose anti-Communist campaign in the early 1950s led to hysteria and political persecution.
That fear was underscored last weekend when a reporter asked ruling party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski if he still trusted the defense minister over a Russian missile that fell in Poland in December.
“I am obliged (…) to regard you as a representative of the Kremlin,” Kaczynski told the reporter. “Because only the Kremlin wants this man to stop being Minister of National Defense.”
The journalist’s employer, TVN, called it the latest attack on independent media.
Paradoxically, the new commission’s plans seemed to mobilize greater support for Tusk.
Tusk, who is also a former president of the EU Council, had called for the march a few weeks ago, urging people to demonstrate “against high prices, theft and lies, for free elections and a Poland democratic European”. The reception was mixed.
Initially, some opposition figures planned to stay away. But after Duda signed the law, other opposition leaders announced they would join them.
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 which preserves the site.
Poland is expected to hold general elections in October, but no date has yet been set.