1,000s join anti-government march led by former presidents in Poland

People hold giant Polish and EU flags as they take part in an anti-government demonstration organized on the 27th anniversary of the first free non-communist election, in Warsaw, Poland June 4, 2016 © Slawomir Kaminski
A massive anti-government rally was held in the Polish capital of Warsaw and many other cities throughout Poland on the anniversary of the country’s first free elections that ended the Communist era. The Warsaw march was led by two former Polish presidents.

Tens of thousands of Poles joined the rally in Warsaw under the slogan “Everyone for freedom.” It was organized by the Committee for the Defense of Democracy (KOD), which opposes reforms being carried out by the conservative ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party.

People waved Polish national flags both to commemorate Poland’s first free elections and to protest the actions of the current government, which they accuse of undermining democracy and moving Poland away for Europe. Poland’s first democratic elections were held 27 years ago on June 4, 1989, peacefully ousting the Communist regime.

According to police, more than 10,000 people took part in the march in the capital, dpa news agency reported. At the same time, Warsaw Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, a member of the opposition centrist Civic Platform (PO), put the number at 200,000, as reported by Reuters.

The demonstrators chanted “Freedom, equality, democracy,” and “We are and will be in Europe” as they carried Polish and European flags. The KOD, which organized the rally along with parliamentary opposition parties, including the PO and the liberal Modern (Nowoczesna) party, accused the government of dismantling Poland’s constitution and undermining the rule of law.

The protesters also demanded that PiS respect EU standards of governance.

“By not respecting European values, PiS is ensuring that we will first find ourselves on the fringes of the European Union, and then outside of it,” Modern party spokeswoman Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz told the protesters, as quoted by Reuters.

The rally was supported by three former Polish presidents – Lech Walesa, Aleksander Kwasniewski, and Bronislaw Komorowski. Kwasniewski and Komorowski even marched at the front of the rally, while Walesa did not attend the demonstration.

Rallies and marches were also held in 20 other Polish cities, the head of KOD, Mateusz Kijowski, announced, as reported by Radio Poland.

In the meantime, the ruling PiS party issued a video in which party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, brother of the late president Lech Kaczynski, said that he and his party are committed to the idea of Poland holding a “strong position” within the European Union.

“Today, being in Europe means being in the EU. We want to be a member of the European Union, because we want to have an influence on Europe’s fate. But our position depends above all on our strength. We have to gain a strong position, become a strong, European nation,” Kaczynski said, as quoted by Reuters.

READ MORE: Tens of thousands flood Warsaw in ‘biggest’ anti-govt, pro-EU protest in decades (VIDEO)

At the same time, at a party meeting earlier on Saturday, Kaczynski accused government opponents of carrying out a “rebellion,” and the judges of the Constitutional Tribunal of violating the constitution for resisting reforms being pushed through by his party to curtail their powers. 

The Saturday rallies were just the latest in a long series of demonstrations that have been held by the opposition since the PiS party came to power in November of 2015. Another anti-government protest in early May, also organized by the KOD and the opposition parties, reportedly drew up to 240,000 people.

The May rally was also attended by former Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, who said at that time that the opposition is fighting for “Polish democracy, Poland’s right to function well in the European Union.”

The ruling PiS party has been sharply criticized by the opposition and EU since passing a number of legal amendments last year, including changes to the Constitutional Court.

The PiS government has taken more direct control of Poland’s supreme judiciary body and also brought state-owned media under government control, while increasing police surveillance powers.

The Council of Europe has said that these reforms undermine the rule of law, and, in January, the European Commission launched an inquiry into the changes to Poland’s Constitutional Court and media laws. The EU’s executive body has been investigating whether the controversial legislation pushed through by the Law and Justice government violates EU standards.