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Polish capital sees huge anti-government protest

Demonstrators hold Polish and EU flags during the “Freedom March” in the Polish capital Warsaw on May 6, 2017 organised by Poland’s main liberal Civic Platform (PO) opposition party to protest against the rightwing nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) government over alleged rule of law violations. JANEK SKARZYNSKI / AFP

Tens of thousands demonstrated in Warsaw against Poland’s government on Saturday, saying the rule of law was at stake after a slew of controversial reforms and appointments to public broadcasters.

The protest — called by the country’s main liberal opposition party — came shortly after an opinion poll showed it pulling ahead of the rightwing nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) government for the first time.

Since winning power in October 2015 elections the PiS has pushed through a string of changes that have led to mass protests at home and a threat of EU sanctions.

Supporters of the liberal Civic Platform (PO) flooded into the sundrenched capital, dubbing the protest a “Freedom March”, with many carrying red-and-while Polish and yellow star-spangled blue EU flags.

“Chairman Kaczynski says Poland is a free country and that nothing threatens that freedom. This isn’t true and we know it,” PO leader Grzegorz Schetyna, referring to PiS party chief Jaroslaw Kaczynski, told the crowds.

“We want a democratic, pro-European and proud Poland that seeks partners and friends in the European Union, not enemies,” he said.

“We know how to stop the bad PiS government and we’ll do it.”

Kaczynski, widely regarded as Poland’s de facto decision-maker despite holding no senior government post, rejected the accusations, insisting the government “fully guarantees freedom.”

“We have democracy, everyone can believe what they want, everyone can protest, everyone can vote how they like, everyone can write what they like,” said Kaczynski during a shipyard visit in Szczecin, northern Poland.

While local government officials allied to the organisers said the march drew 90,000 people, police put the number at 12,000. AFP journalists on site estimated 50,000 marchers in the sunshine, before rain came.

The PO liberals accuse Kaczynski’s populist government of using its “good change” policy to push through staff changes that undermine the independence of the Constitutional Court and other public institutions, such as television and radio stations.

The PiS, which swept back into power partly by playing on fears of an immigration influx, has also come under scrutiny for installing loyalists as directors in state-controlled enterprises.

The party had been out of power for almost a decade.

Kaczynski has said refugees bring “cholera to the Greek islands, dysentery to Vienna, various types of parasites”.

But latest polling shows the PO scoring 31 percent, pulling ahead of the PiS (29 percent) for the first time since the October 2015 election.

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