Thousands of citizens marched through city streets across Poland on Saturday to protest the right-wing government's encroaching authoritarianism, including a new plan to enact sweeping surveillance measures.
"Our privacy, intimacy is under threat, we can be followed, watched over both in our homes, and online," Mateusz Kijowski, founder of the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD) party and one of the protest organizers, told a large crowd in Warsaw as people held signs and stood in frigid temperatures to voice their opposition to the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party that took control in November following parliamentary elections.
"We are not revolutionaries," Kijowski said. "Revolutionaries are those who destroy order, who want to impose their own rule. We want to preserve our democracy and our freedom."
According to Reuters:
Waving Polish and European Union flags, the protesters demanded that the Law and Justice party withdraw its planned changes to the surveillance law.
"You're supposed to listen, not listen in," read one of the banners. The proposed changes would expand the government's access to digital data and loosen the legal framework of using surveillance in law enforcement.
The news agency reports how dissent has been growing in the country since PiS gained power. A series of moves by the new government, led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski and enabled by President Andrzej Duda, to seize "more control of the judiciary and the media have divided Poland and raised alarm bells in the Europe Union, which has started investigating charges that Warsaw is undermining democratic principles."
In a national poll taken in December, more than half of Poland's people (56%) said that Kaczynski and the PiS were a direct threat to the nation's democracy. Remi Adekoya, a Phd student and Poland-based journalist, argued in a recent column that Kaczynski—like Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and other far-right party leaders across Europe—"seems hungry for total control" of the state. Like Orbán in Hungary, the PiS has been perfecting an increasingly hostile position regarding the plight of refugees seeking asylum in Europe.
Pointing to the shadow that Hungary's Orbán is now casting over Polish politics, Saturday's demonstration in Warsaw was attended by many opposition activists from Hungary, including Balazs Gulyas who issued a warning to his Polish neighbors about what has happened in his country.
"Jaroslaw Kaczynski wants to follow Viktor Orban," Gulyas reportedly said, as he addressed the crowd in English. "So we Hungarians should warn you: whatever Kaczynski promises, this road is going towards autocracy, economic backwardness, a shrinking middle class and increasing poverty."
One protester held up a sign that said "Happy New Year 1984" and explained to the Associated Press her fears that life in Poland could begin to resemble the authoritarian state depicted in George Orwell's famous novel.
Amid the growing concerns of the Polish government's behavior, the EU's investigation seeks to determine if any of the newly-enact reforms violate the bloc's democratic standards. As Agence France Presse reports:
Brussels introduced the "rule of law" mechanism in 2014, giving the 28-nation bloc the right to investigate and if necessary punish any member state which violates key EU democratic and rights norms.
If found at fault, a country can be stripped of its EU voting rights—the so-called "nuclear option"—but the procedure has not been used before and officials say they hope it does not come to that.
Said demonstrator Anna Straszewska, a 42-year-old art historian marching in Warsaw, "We are afraid that things could get that bad if we don't protest now. I remember communism. When democracy came I thought we would be part of the West forever. Now I am even afraid this could end up in us leaving the EU."