WARSAW — Poland’s opposition held an enormous rally in Warsaw and other cities on Sunday — claiming more than a million people took part — but the mood two weeks ahead of the election is grim rather than triumphant.
That’s because the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has been holding on to a significant lead in the polls. POLITICO’s Poll of Polls has PiS at 38 percent while Civic Coalition, the main opposition grouping, is at 30 percent.
The Million Hearts march called by Donald Tusk, a former prime minister who heads the Civic Coalition, was supposed to lift the spirits of opposition supporters and show them that PiS — in power since 2015 — can be beaten.
“The impossible has become possible, when I see this sea of hearts, when I see these hundreds of thousands of smiling faces, I feel that this turning point in the history of our homeland is approaching,” Tusk told the crowd in Warsaw.
But the mood among the thousands of people streaming through the heart of the Polish capital — many waving red-and-white Polish or deep-blue EU flags — was more sober.
“I’ve had it up to my ears with the government of these awful people who are destroying my country,” said Kalina de Nisau, wearing a wrap made out of knotted EU and Polish flags. “But I’m not certain that this march will change the outcome. It’s very difficult.”
While Tusk and other party leaders were exhorting the huge crowd in Warsaw, PiS leaders were in Poland’s coal mining capital of Katowice to warn darkly of the dangers awaiting Poland if Tusk and his allies win on October 15.
Merkel and migrants
“If we succeed in beating [Civic Coalition] we’ll chase away Tusk. Where? To Berlin,” announced Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, hitting on a popular PiS theme that Tusk is in cahoots with Germany to cripple Poland. He then called Tusk the “political husband” of former German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
He also accused Tusk of trying to organize a wave of illegal migrants into the EU, waving a sheaf of documents he said spelled out the scheme “in black and white.” PiS is trying to deflect the blowback from a growing bribes-for-visas scandal where Polish consulates are accused of issuing work visas for cash, and also of issuing huge numbers of visas to non-EU citizens.
Germany last week brought in heightened border controls on its frontiers with the Czech Republic and Poland to curb an influx of asylum seekers.
PiS also downplayed the scale of the opposition march — which may be the largest in Polish history.
Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of PiS and Poland’s de facto ruler, denounced “powerful media” that support Tusk for exaggerating the size of the rally.
“They are able to say, for example, that there were a million people in Warsaw today, as Tusk said, although both photos and police statements state that there were 60,000,” Kaczyński said, quoting an unofficial police estimate. During the rally, the route of the march was 4 kilometers long and the eight-lane streets and sidewalks were densely packed with people.
Tusk seized on the size of the crowd to insist it shows a desire to break with PiS, which has seen years of bitter fights with Brussels over accusations it is backsliding on rule of law and democracy thanks to radical changes made to the justice system.
“It’s not about this being the largest political demonstration in European history,” Tusk said. “Europe lives in the hope that Poland will again become a 100 percent European country, democratic and free.”
But a PiS defeat in two weeks is going to need a very rapid change in fortunes for the opposition. Otherwise, PiS is likely to be the largest party, and will then have to hunt for partners to form a coalition that would see it ruling for an unprecedented third four-year term.
“I’m not very optimistic,” said Katarzyna Osuch, walking along with the sea of people in Warsaw. “I think PiS might continue ruling. … I’m very disappointed.”