Mass Protests in Poland - A Turning Point?
On June 4, 2023, a series of anti-government protests took place in Warsaw, Krakow and some other Polish cities. Sparked by the bill commonly referred to as "Lex Tusk", these were the largest protests in recent Polish history. In this article, a second-year EPS student Marius Heil who had a chance to observe the protest in Krakow is reflecting on whether these rallies can become a turning point in Polish history.
Last Sunday hundreds of thousands of people followed the Polish opposition's call for a joint protest against the government and for a democratic, free and European Poland. June 4 is a symbolic date. On this day 34 years ago the first semi-free elections were held after the fall of the communist regime. On the same date this year, the opposition, led by Donald Tusk (Civic Platform Party), called for a protest march under the slogan "Against inflation, theft and lies, for free elections and a democratic, European Poland." Former president, Solidarność leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Lech Wałęsa also took part in the rally.
The march gained further momentum after a controversial law establishing a parliamentary commission to investigate Russian interference in Polish politics was passed by the Sejm last week. The law criminalizes anyone for making political decisions under Russia's influence and could exclude these individuals from holding public office for ten years without a court ruling. The legislation has also been dubbed as "Lex Tusk" in Poland, as the government has been criticized for creating the commission primarily to eliminate Tusk and the opposition. The passage of the law also led to criticism from the U.S. State Department and the European Commission which expressed concerns over its misuse to interfere in Poland’s democratic process and the free and fair elections this fall.
Across the country, additional rallies were organized, as trains and buses to Warsaw were fully booked due to the high demand. For example, the Komitet Obrony Demokracji (Committee for the Defense of Democracy) also organized a support march in Krakow. The participation in the march in Krakow as well as in Warsaw exceeded the expectations of the organizers. According to the organizers and the city administration, half a million people participated in the central protest march in Warsaw. In Krakow, there were almost no police officers to accompany the protest march and the organizers had nothing prepared except a small speaker with a microphone. Therefore, the march from Market Square through Krakow's Old Town towards Szczepański Square had to be improvised, as none of the organizers had expected such crowds.
The market square in Krakow's Old Town was a sea full of people with Polish and European flags. Participants held banners saying "Body in Krakow, Spirit in Warsaw" and shouts of "Freedom, Equality, Democracy" were chanted during the march. The national anthem was also sung several times. This is of central importance, as the PiS government usually presents itself as the protector of the 'true' Poland and accuses the opposition of betraying its own nation. Thus, the protest march made clear that patriotism is not left to the right and nationalists, but can be countered with a democratic, open and pro-European Polish patriotism.
The march was attended by like-minded individuals from different segments of society, ranging from families with children over young people to many of those who themselves lived under the previous communist regime knowing what it means to live without democracy and freedom. This unifying spirit across different generations and political forces is a crucial aspect for the success of the opposition in the upcoming elections. The government faces a tough task ahead, as the opposition is gaining wider support among different parts of Polish society and the far-right Konfederacja consistently polling around 10%.
This pressure that the government faces is reflected by the coverage of these marches by the Polish state media. In particular, they argued that the demonstrations brought in an "aggressive atmosphere" fuelled by "the vulgar language" used at these demonstrations. This depiction of the demonstrations by the Polish government further exemplifies how the PiS government has used state television to distort the truth in an attempt to stigmatize and delegitimize the opposition and wider concerns within Polish society. Especially, in light of the fact that private media have covered these demonstrations in a different light.
This raises the question if these demonstrations mark a turning point after more than eight years of PiS in government?
On the one hand, the symbolism behind these demonstrations should not be downplayed because they are, arguably, the largest political demonstrations in recent Polish history. Moreover, the demonstrations were visited by Polish people from rural areas who have formed the core base of the PiS electorate. Last Sunday, people from all parts of Poland came to cities like Krakow, Szczecin and Opole for the protest marches.
On the other hand, there remains a long way to go until the parliamentary elections in October, as it will be crucial to maintain the momentum and keep people mobilized. According to polls, the PiS currently maintains a stable 32-35% and they will do anything to retain power. The state media, the rule of law and many important cultural institutions have been hijacked by PiS since 2015. In light of this, if the opposition can succeed, it is faced with significant challenges in restoring the institutions and regaining the trust of its citizens. Unfortunately, only time can tell us whether these efforts will reap their results.
In his speech held at the main demonstration in Warsaw, Donald Tusk told protestors, "Democracy dies in silence, but today you have raised your voice for democracy. The silence is over". Nevertheless, Polish society remains deeply polarized even though the June 4th demonstrations bring a sense of hope for a change of power, albeit these hopes still depend on the outcome at the ballot box in the parliamentary elections of October. The opposition parties must display their fighting spirit with determination and consistency to sway the Polish voters in the upcoming months. Moreover, it is incumbent upon them to hold the former government accountable for its attacks on the Polish democratic system and facilitate the creeping path of authoritarianism. In light of this, the coming period will show whether Kaczyński miscalculated and went too far this time with the "Lex-Tusk".