2nd October 2023 – (Warsaw) Warsaw and other cities in Poland witnessed a massive opposition rally on Sunday, dubbed the Million Hearts march, with organisers claiming that over a million people participated. However, the atmosphere leading up to the election, just two weeks away, remains sombre rather than triumphant. This is primarily due to the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party maintaining a significant lead in the polls. According to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls, PiS commands 38 per cent of the support, while the main opposition group, Civic Coalition, lags behind at 30 per cent.
The purpose of the march, called by Donald Tusk, former prime minister and leader of the Civic Coalition, was to uplift the spirits of opposition supporters and demonstrate that PiS, in power since 2015, can be defeated. Addressing the crowd in Warsaw, Tusk expressed hope, stating, “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.”
Despite Tusk’s rallying cry, the mood among the thousands of protesters flooding the streets of Warsaw was more subdued. Many waved red-and-white Polish or deep-blue EU flags, expressing frustration with the current government. Kalina de Nisau, donning a wrap made from intertwined EU and Polish flags, lamented, “I’ve had it up to my ears with the government of these awful people who are destroying my country. But I’m not certain that this march will change the outcome. It’s very difficult.”
While opposition leaders sought to inspire the massive crowd in Warsaw, PiS leaders chose to hold their own event in Katowice, Poland’s coal mining capital. They issued warnings about the perils they believe await Poland if Tusk and his allies were to win on October 15. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, addressing supporters, declared, “If we succeed in beating [Civic Coalition], we’ll chase away Tusk. Where? To Berlin,” perpetuating the popular PiS narrative that Tusk colludes with Germany to harm Poland. Morawiecki even went as far as labelling Tusk the “political husband” of former German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Accusing Tusk of attempting to orchestrate an influx of illegal migrants into the EU, Morawiecki brandished a stack of documents supposedly outlining the scheme. This allegation serves as a deflection tactic by PiS to divert attention from a brewing scandal involving bribery-for-visas, where Polish consulates are accused of issuing work visas in exchange for cash, as well as granting excessive numbers of visas to non-EU citizens.
As tensions rise, Germany recently enhanced border controls on its frontiers with the Czech Republic and Poland to mitigate the influx of asylum seekers. PiS, on the other hand, downplayed the scale of the opposition march, despite it potentially being the largest in Polish history.
Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of PiS and Poland’s de facto ruler, criticized the “powerful media” supporting Tusk for exaggerating the rally’s size. Kaczyński cited an unofficial police estimate of 60,000 attendees, contradicting Tusk’s claim of over a million. However, the march covered a route of 4 kilometres, and the eight-lane streets and sidewalks were densely packed with people.
Tusk seized upon the massive turnout to emphasize the desire for change and breaking away from PiS. The party has faced ongoing disputes with Brussels over allegations of democratic backsliding and erosion of the rule of law due to drastic changes made to the justice system. Tusk stated, “It’s not about this being the largest political demonstration in European history. Europe lives in the hope that Poland will again become a 100 per cent European country, democratic and free.”
Nevertheless, for the opposition to secure victory in the upcoming election, a rapid and dramatic shift in fortunes is necessary. Otherwise, PiS is likely to emerge as the largest party and will need to seek coalition partners to form a government for an unprecedented third consecutive term. “I’m not very optimistic,” admitted Katarzyna Osuch, an attendee of the Warsaw rally. “I think PiS might continue ruling… I’m very disappointed.”