240,000 Poles join landmark pro-EU, pro-democracy march

Warsaw (AFP) - Around a quarter of a million Poles flooded central Warsaw on Saturday, marching to defend their country's place in the European Union and protest against moves by the right-wing government, which they claim undermine democracy.

Warsaw city hall said the march drew around 240,000 people, making it one of the largest demonstrations since the 1989 collapse of communism in Poland.

The mammoth protest came about as an annual pro-EU parade merged with a demonstration called by a coalition of pro-democracy groups and opposition parties.

Shouting "freedom, equality, democracy," the mass of marchers inched their way through the sun-drenched city centre, brandishing a mix of red-and-white Polish flags with blue and gold EU flags.

"We're here because we want to fight for Poland's freedom, for democracy," former president Bronislaw Komorowski, a liberal, told marchers as the demonstration got under way.

The protest comes amid a mounting political crisis in the central European heavyweight, triggered by changes the populist-oriented right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) government has made to the constitutional court.

In December it pushed through legislation to stack the court and modify its decision-making rules.

The court itself struck down the changes as unconstitutional in March, pitting it against the PiS majority government, which wasted no time in dismissing the ruling.

The resulting deadlock means the court is paralysed, leaving Poland without a fundamental check on government powers.

- 'Polish Maidan'? -

"What's happening right now is a violation of the rights of Poles, the destruction of the rule of law and a violation of the constitution," marcher Rafal Zagorowski, a 60-year-old construction worker told AFP, referring to measures taken by the PiS government.

"I'm afraid that (PiS party leader Jaroslaw) Kaczynski will provoke a confrontation, that blood will be spilt.

"He's a madman who doesn't listen to anyone, doesn't listen to Poles or obey the law."

Although he holds no government post, Kaczynski is regarded as the real dealmaker in the government.

He insisted Saturday "there was no risk to democracy" in Poland and that the protest was due to the opposition's bitterness over losing both the presidential and parliamentary elections last year.

"Those who are protesting today just want to stir the pot in Poland," Kaczynski said.

Protester Danuta Grzymkowska however told AFP she was worried the ongoing political crisis could escalate into violence.

"Many believe this will become a Polish 'Maidan'," she told AFP, referring to the iconic square in Ukraine's capital Kiev that was the scene of the country's bloody pro-EU revolution in 2014 that led to the ouster of a pro-Russia regime.

"I really hope I'm wrong," she added.

The PiS-led government's changes to the constitutional court have not only sparked a string of large street protests at home but also drawn sharp criticism from Brussels and the European Parliament, which Warsaw has dismissed as unneccessary interference in its internal affairs.

Since it swept to power in October elections, the PiS has also pushed through controversial measures that strengthen state controls over public broadcasters.

Last month, three former Polish presidents including Lech Walesa accused the PiS of destroying the country's constitution, appealing to citizens to "defend democracy".

Markets have also reacted strongly to the political turmoil, hitting Poland's zloty currency and the Warsaw stock exchange.

Ultra-nationalist parties and sympathisers organised a counter-demonstration in the capital Saturday, drawing around 4,000 people, insisting that Poland's EU membership meant it was subject to the "diktat of Brussels".

Although recent PiS actions have chilled relations between Poland and European institutions, party leaders including Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and kingpin Kaczynski himself, have never gone so far as to question Warsaw's membership of the bloc.