Poland’s opposition leader Donald Tusk told a huge crowd in Warsaw on Sunday that change is “inevitable” after the country’s October 15th general election.
Hundreds of thousands of people attended a rally in the capital headlined by Mr Tusk and his centrist Civic Platform (PO). With three other left-liberal parties, the PO’s new Civic Alliance (KO) aims to prevent the national conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party from securing a third term in office.
Though PiS is enjoying a seven-point lead on the KO alliance, uncertain post-election coalition options mean the outcome of the election is anything but certain. All morning Polish opposition supporters, many waving “PiSexit” signs, flooded into the vast expanse around Warsaw’s communist-era central station and palace of culture.
“Let no one among the ruling team have any illusions: change for the better is inevitable,” said Mr Tusk, a one-term prime minister and former president of the European Council, before a crowd waving EU and Polish flags.
“When I see these hundreds of thousands of smiling faces, I feel that this breakthrough moment is coming in the history of our homeland.”
The KO alliance has promised voters more progressive politics, an end to an eight-year standoff with Brussels over judicial reforms and an end to violent political rhetoric and the polarisation of Poland into warring camps.
Just how wide the gulf has grown was clear even with Sunday’s estimates of rally attendance. They ranged from “approximately one million” by Warsaw’s city hall, governed by the PO, to a much lower estimate of 100,000 attendees by the public media outlets, now under strong government control.
PiS held its own rally on Sunday in the southern city of Katowice, attended by 11,000 people. With an eye on Warsaw, Ms Elzbieta Witek, a PiS member and speaker of parliament, denounced the “systematic evil we see and hear at opposition demonstrations”.
As well as attacking the “evil” opposition, the PiS campaign promises focus on keeping migrants out, boosting welfare payments for families and pensioners. These reforms, often announced just before elections, have made the party popular with working class voters and Poland’s three million families with children.
If re-elected on October 15th, PiS has promised a 60 per cent increase in the monthly children’s allowance to 800 zlotys (€173) per child. After eight years in power, however, PiS is increasingly on the defensive.
Many women voters are furious at an effective abortion ban and terrified by cases of doctors allowing pregnant women die rather than intervene and risk prosecution. Another growing controversy surrounds claims that huge numbers of Schengen-area visas were sold worldwide by Polish consular officials or licensed agencies.
Two weeks to polling day, PiS MPs and voters dismiss all criticism of their party chairman, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. After presiding over an unstable second-term coalition, however, the PiS leader knows finding a third term majority will be a challenge.
Speaking in Katowice on Sunday, Mr Kaczynski ran through familiar warnings. He said the “Tusk system” would, if returned to power, push German and Russian interests over Polish interests.
”They intend to eliminate democracy and any traces of the rule of law,” he said – criticisms often levelled at Mr Kaczynski himself.
Since taking office in 2015, critics in Poland and across Europe say PiS has undermined the rule of law through political appointees and irregular appointments to public media and key courts.
The government dismisses these criticisms but, under pressure from the EU, agreed to roll back controversial appointments procedures and a disciplinary body for judges.
Ongoing disagreements with Brussels on democratic standards means PiS has yet to secure Poland’s €35.4 billion share of Covid-era emergency funding for infrastructure and digital spending.
A third PiS term may hinge on wooing parliamentary support from the populist, far-right Confederation, which launched its campaign last week in Katowice under the slogan, “we can do anything”.
Confederation’s promises of lower taxes, light-touch state regulation and a robust nationalist pushback against the EU and Ukraine have seen it double support to 15 per cent.
The party is particularly popular among younger voters frustrated by a political system they view as stymied by a two-decade Tusk-Kaczynski grudge match.
While political analysts suggest a Confederation alliance with PiS could undermine Poland’s membership of the EU and Nato, far-right leaders are playing their cards close to their chest.
”With this election,” said Mr Krzysztof Bosak, party co-leader, “we are going overturn the table where all the politicians are seated.”