Tens of thousands of Poles took to the streets in more than 100 cities across the country, including some European capitals, on Sunday to claim their Europeanism in the face of the monumental challenge of the ultra-conservative Polish government to the European Union. “Poland is in the EU and we are proud”, “We are”, thousands of voices chanted together in the Warsaw Castle square, with Beethoven’s Hymn to Joy in the background, symbol of the Union, and European flags. A public official in his 50s, who refused to reveal his name for fear of reprisals, summed up why he went to the protest: “Poland is being left alone, it is isolating itself, and we are afraid.”
The ruling of the Constitutional Court, which on Thursday declared the prevalence of Polish law over European law, met on Sunday the multitudinous resistance of the opposition and the population. The square in Warsaw was packed with 80,000 to 100,000 demonstrators – according to a City Hall spokesman quoted by the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza – older than young, who gathered at six in the afternoon. Despite the pandemic and fears that nationalist groups would attack the protest – they tried, but the police stopped them from approaching – the summoning of Donald Tusk, former president of the European Council and leader of the Civic Platform, the main opposition party, it was a success.
“We want an independent, European, democratic Poland that respects law and justice. These principles are now crushed by power devoid of conscience and morals,” the leader told the crowd. For Tusk, Poland is at its most important historical moment since the fall of communism in 1989. The protest sought to defend that Poland is European – more than 80% of the population declares itself to be Europeanist – and that the message, almost of help, arrived in Brussels. But, above all, they wanted to make it clear to the ultra-nationalist and conservative government of the Law and Justice (PiS) party of Jaroslaw Kaczynski. “I’m here because I care about Poland. I’m Polish and European, and I want to continue being one,” defended Karolina Skora, a 25-year-old protest participant who works in international relations.
The demonstration was also a vehicle of civil resistance, a cry against authoritarianism and the government’s reactionary turn, which attacks the rule of law, undermining the independence of judges, but also the rights of women, the LGTBI collective, immigrants and others minorities. Wotel Sova, a 55-year-old economist, said – as he waited for the speeches of 12 leaders of politics and civil society to begin – that the Constitutional Court ruling was part of “policies that are driving Poland into an autocracy”. “It’s crazy; we don’t know how other countries will react. We don’t want them to exclude us in Europe”.
The organizers of much of the protests across the country, the Committee for the Defense of Democracy (KOD, for its Polish acronym) share this uncertainty. “We want to demonstrate that what the Government says and does is not what we want. We want to remain in the European Union and we are afraid that Polexit is actually happening,” Lukasz Szopa, pro-democracy activist and vice president of KOD, told EL PAÍS before the protest.
This departure from Brussels began in 2015, when PiS came to power, according to Bogdan Klich, senator for the Civic Platform and chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and European Union of the Polish Senate. “The process began when the Government weakened the role of the Constitutional Court,” he says. Thursday’s sentence challenge “means a legal Polexit, which opens the door to a real one,” says Klich.
Former Polish People’s Defender Adam Bodnar, who was in office between September 2015 and July 2021, personally suffered the hardships of facing the Executive of Mateusz Morawiecki. For Bodnar, the court ruling is “a dramatic decision from the point of view of the rights of the Poles”, because it guarantees that “the Government will continue to exercise its authoritarian power”. The former defender, who addressed the protesters from the stage, told EL PAÍS that the PiS “will continue to do everything possible to subdue the judiciary, the last part of the institutions of the entire Polish system that is trying to be independent”.
Faced with the executive’s authoritarian turn, the resistance of Polish society remains, as was visible on Sunday. PiS tries, however, to weaken it through the control of the communication vehicles. “Since the end of 2015, the Government has used the same methods on radio and public television as the communist regime. It turned the public press into a huge propaganda machine,” says Klich. Private vehicles are also threatened and guarded. “The drama is that for geographical reasons, in towns and small towns where a third of the population lives, the only source of information is public vehicles.” And in them, the message of the Government is amplified these days: that Thursday’s sentence defends national sovereignty against European interference in decisions that affect Poland. On Sunday, the label accompanying information about the demonstrations read: “Protest against the Constitution,” according to Reuters.
Marta Lempart, a women’s rights activist and founder of the Strajk Kobiet (Women’s Strike) movement is optimistic. As he explained to ELPAÍS hours before taking the stage and addressing the protesters, Polish civil society has never been so organized since 2015, the year that marked it before and after in the country. The end to the drift of the Government is for the population to “protest and organize itself”, he says. To put pressure on Warsaw, but also on the European institutions “to fight for the Poles”.
“At some point, I know, this right-wing populist government will fall and we will manage to have a secular state with human rights as a fundamental part of democracy,” says Lempart. After the rally in Warsaw, the activist led a march with a small group of protesters to the PiS headquarters.
“We will undoubtedly win, the question is when”, also said the senator of the Civic Platform. Klich evoked the massive strikes of 1980, still under the communist regime, “which led to the establishment of the Solidarity union and which brought together 10 million people.” This type of mobilization will return and the Poles will end “with the process of decay of democracy”, he predicted.
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