Battle for Democracy Rages in Poland as Opposition Gains Ground

(Bloomberg) -- Poland’s biggest opposition group brought 50,000 people to the streets of Warsaw on Saturday to protest what they see as the government’s efforts to restrict democracy and distance the nation from the European Union.

Protesters carrying Poland and EU flags, and signs calling for “freedom, equality and democracy,” thronged the center of the capital city, shouting “constitution” and “we will defend democracy.”

Buoyed by growing popularity, the opposition Civic Platform is seeking to present itself as a viable alternative to the Law & Justice party’s 30-month-old government, which has been accused of curbing democratic standards and promoting nepotism.

Bartosz Milczarczyk, Warsaw municipality’s spokesman, confirmed the turnout.

“The battle over basic values continues and it won’t stop,” Grzegorz Schetyna, leader of Civic Platform, told the gathering. Andrzej Rzeplinski, former chief justice of Constitutional Tribunal, and Katarzyna Lubnauer, a leader of Nowoczesna opposition party, joined the march.

Law & Justice still leads Civic Platform in popularity polls, but recent surveys showed the margin narrowing. United opposition parties trail the ruling party by a mere 3.5 percentage points in the most recent survey of 1,100 Poles by IBRIS on May 9, narrower than the 5.3 percentage points in the previous poll from April 21.

Support for Law & Justice has been dented by criticism of former Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, who paid bonuses to herself and other cabinet members of as much as 82,000 zloty ($23,000), or about one-and-a-half times the country’s average annual wage.

Authorities have also faced criticism over a law criminalizing suggestions that Poland was complicit in the Holocaust, which outraged Israel and alarmed allies including the U.S. and France. Poland this week hardened its stance on the rule-of-law dispute with the European Commission that, in the worst-case but unlikely scenario, could strip it of its voting rights.

In a recent blow to its popularity, the government of Mateusz Morawiecki has faced sustained protests by disabled people and caretakers, who have spent almost a month in parliament demanding more benefits. Today’s march was joined by a group of people who gathered in front of the parliament to show their support to this cause.

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