The Guardian • Issue #2057

Half million march against Poland’s far-right PiS

Lech Wałęsa, June 2014.

Lech Wałęsa, June 2014. Photo: Radek Bet – (CC BY-NC 2.0).

On 5th June half a million people waving Polish and European Union flags marched through central Warsaw. It was the largest political rally in Poland since the end of the communist period in 1989. The march was a protest against Poland’s right-wing populist government, the Law and Justice Party (PiS), and to mark the 34th anniversary of the Solidarity trade union movement, under Lech Wałęsa, which ended communist rule. Wałęsa, a staunch critic of PiS, was at the rally. The protest march was supported by the Civic Platform Party, its leader Donald Tusk, who was prime minister of Poland from 2007 to 2014. Tusk said, “the whole world sees how strong we are and how we are ready to fight for democracy and freedom again, like we did 30, 40 years ago.”

The Civic Platform is head of the Civic Coalition, which was founded in 2018. It holds 106 seats in the Sejm and 37 seats in the Senate. Of Civic Platform supporters, 35 per cent identify with the centre, 28 per cent the left-wing, and 24 per cent are right-wing. It is the second largest party in Poland.

PiS has been in power since 2015. In that time it has eroded Polish democracy, attacked the system of independent judiciary, the LGBTQ+ community, same-sex marriage, and women’s reproductive rights. While President Andrzej Duda did sign, on 23rd March 2023, an amendment to the Labour Code to implement EU directives on working conditions, to improve the work-life balance of parents and caregivers, PiS gives little support to European integration and opposes the use of the Euro.

The Law and Justice Party is also staunchly anti-communist. In 2020 Poland’s Prosecutor General, Zbigniew Ziobro, sought to ban the Communist Party of Poland (KPP), which must follow communist ideology and not “totalitarian” rule. The Communist Party of Sweden (SKP) condemned the anti-communist legislative changes, expressing solidarity with the KPP.

PiS claims that the obligations placed on Poland, as an EU member state, undermines its sovereignty, because EU law is the top law. In May the European Union’s highest court found that Poland’s Justice Reforms of 2019, violate EU law. The Polish Supreme Court lacks independence and impartiality, with the government reviewing judges’ decisions and threatening them with fines and suspension. This is against EU law. For such breaches Poland has been fined nearly 1 billion Euros. On 6th June the Polish government rejected the EU’s ruling. Ziobro called the EU Court of Justice “corrupt,” vowing not to comply.

The opposition against PiS was galvanised by a controversial commission set up to investigate “Russian influence” inside the country, banning from public office anyone who was seen as agents of Russian influence. President Duda said, “transparency in explaining important public and political issues” was of the “utmost importance.” The commission is nicknamed “Lex Tusk,” as it is widely seen as targeting the opposition leader. The human rights activist, Sylwia Gregorczyk-Abram, said that Poland is “at a crossroads between being an authoritarian and a democratic country.”

Brussels and Washington have expressed serious concerns about the PiS Commission. On 29th May, Matthew Miller, the US State Department spokesperson, said the US is concerned that the law could interfere with “free and fair elections,” blocking the candidacy of opposition politicians without due process. “We call on the government of Poland to ensure this law does not preempt voters’ ability to vote for candidates of their choice and that it not be invoked or abused in ways that could affect the perceived legitimacy of elections.” On 2nd June Duda amended the law, following the criticism.

President Duda praised Ukraine for saving Europe from “the deluge of Russian imperialism.” In April 2023, President Zelenskyy met Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, saying Poland will be a key partner in developing future Ukrainian infrastructure. Zelenskyy said that his government would “extend a hearty welcome” to Polish businesses seeking to help Ukraine’s post-war rebuilding, which the World Bank has estimated would cost US$41 billion. President Duda awarded President Zelenskyy the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest honour.

Poland has already given much needed assistance to Ukraine, allowing 1.5 million Ukrainians to live, study and work in the country. According to the Polish Economic Institute, Polish citizens provided US$1 billion in cash and goods to help Ukrainians in 2022. The country also has sent US$2.5 billion in arms and equipment, including 300 tanks and four Soviet-era MiG-29 jets, to Ukraine.

The US ambassador, Mark Brzezinski, said at the inauguration of the first permanent US army base in Poland. “It signals to the world that the United States is committed to Poland, and to the NATO alliance. That we are united in the face of Russian aggression.” More than 10,000 US soldiers are now stationed in Poland. According to Deutsche Welle News the small town of Rzeszow has had up to ten jumbo jets arrive every day in May, to supply armaments to nearby Ukraine. The airport is protected by US anti-aircraft missiles.

Poland faces an election in October 2023, the results of which are complicated by the US government needing Poland as a conduit to supply armaments to Ukraine. The US is also Poland’s the second most important source of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). In 2022 the American Chamber of Commerce in Warsaw estimated US investments at US$25 billion.

The New York Times says opinion polls, done before the march, indicated that PiS would win the election by a narrow victory, because of its outspoken defence of “traditional” Christian values, increasing welfare payments to needy families, attacking “LGBT ideology,” and declaring the EU a threat to Polish sovereignty. The following months will see how popular feelings are changed in Poland, under increasing US political influence.

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