Ruling party releases Auschwitz-themed video against rally

Tens of thousands set to march in Poland against law they say harms democracy

Demonstration may be largest since end of communism; opposition says law setting up probe on Russian influence will be used to exclude them from political scene

File: Protesters shout slogans as they gather in front of the Presidential Palace to show President Andrzej Duda their disapproval after he signed controversial legislation on the Supreme Court into law, in Warsaw, Poland, July 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz)
File: Protesters shout slogans as they gather in front of the Presidential Palace to show President Andrzej Duda their disapproval after he signed controversial legislation on the Supreme Court into law, in Warsaw, Poland, July 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz)

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland’s largest opposition party is leading a march Sunday meant to mobilize voters against the right-wing government, which it accuses of eroding democracy and following Hungary and Turkey down the path to autocracy.

Donald Tusk, the country’s former prime minister, has called on Poles to march with him for the sake of the nation’s future. His party and security officials predicted that tens of thousands of people will join the demonstration.

Media not aligned with the government said it could be among the biggest protests in post-communist Poland.

Supporters of the march have warned that elections this fall might be the last chance to stop the erosion of democracy under the ruling party, Law and Justice.

In power since 2015, Law and Justice has found a popular formula, combining higher social spending with socially conservative policies and support for the church in the mostly Catholic nation.

However, critics have warned for years that it is reversing many of the democratic achievements of the 1980s.

File: Poland’s opposition leader and former prime minister Donald Tusk watches lawmakers vote to approve a contentious draft law in parliament in Warsaw, Poland, May 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Even the United States government has intervened at times when it felt the government was eroding press freedom and academic freedom in the area of Holocaust research.

Critics point mainly to the party’s step-by-step takeover of most of the judiciary as well as its use of state media for heavy-handed propaganda used to tarnish opponents. It has also tapped into animosity against minorities, particularly LGBTQ people, whose struggle for rights it depicts as a threat to families and national identity. A clampdown on abortion rights has triggered mass protests.

The march is being held on the 34th anniversary of the first democratic elections in 1989 after Poland emerged from decades of communist rule. It will be a test for Tusk’s Civic Platform, a centrist and pro-European party that has been trailing in polls behind Law and Justice, but which seems set to gain more support after the passage of a controversial law.

The law allows for the creation of a commission to investigate Russian influence in Poland. Critics argue that the commission would have unconstitutional powers, including the capacity to exclude officials from public life for a decade. They fear it will be used by the ruling party to remove Tusk and other opponents from public life.

Amid uproar in Poland and criticism from the US and the EU, President Andrzej Duda, who signed the law on Monday, was already proposing amendments to it on Friday.

Some Poles say it could come to resemble the investigations of Joseph McCarthy, the US senator whose anti-Communist campaign in the early 1950s led to hysteria and political persecution.

File: Parliament speaker Elzbieta Witek (left) leans in to speak to Poland’s ruling party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski (right), at a party convention in Warsaw, Poland, May 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

That fear was underlined last weekend when the ruling party leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, was asked by a reporter if he still had trust in the defense minister in connection with a Russian missile that fell in Poland in December.

“I am forced … to view you as a representative of the Kremlin,” Kaczynski told the reporter. “Because only the Kremlin wants this man to stop being the minister of national defense.”

The journalist’s employer, TVN, called it the latest attack on independent media.

Paradoxically, the plans for the new commission appeared to mobilize greater support for Tusk.

Polish President Andrzej Duda speaks at the headquarters of Poland’s Power Grid in Konstancin-Jeziorna, Poland, June 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Michal Dyjuk)

Tusk, who is also a former EU council president, had called for the march weeks ago, urging people to demonstrate “against high prices, theft, and lies, for free elections and a democratic, European Poland.” The reception was mixed.

Initially, some opposition figures planned to stay away. But after Duda signed the law, other opposition leaders announced they would join in.

Law and Justice sought to discourage participation in the march with a video spot using Auschwitz as a theme — drawing criticism from the state museum that preserves the site.

Poland is expected to hold general elections in October, though a date has not yet been set.

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