Upwards of 100,000 Polish demonstrators called for improved social welfare and for Prime Minister Donald Tusk to step down. But both in Poland and abroad, there are fears of the man who might succeed him.
It began in the middle of the week with 10,000 demonstrators, some of whom had camped out in tents in front of the Polish parliament building in Warsaw. Three days later, more than 100,000 had been drawn to the capital, carrying drums, pipes and banners and demanding more expansive social welfare programs.
It was the largest mass demonstration in Poland in years, brought to fruition by the Solidarność union and the OPZZ general trade union federation.
“We're finally waking up,” yelled Solidarność director Piotr Duda at the demonstration. “An end to the robbery of the people!”
The unions want to get rid of the country's center-right government. Parades of people in Warsaw left few doubts as to that intention. Demonstrators derided the country's prime minister of nearly six years, Donald Tusk - images depicted him as Pinocchio, posing as Lenin, wearing a Peruvian cap, or carrying a football under an outstretched arm. “Thieves, thieves, out with the government,” demonstrators chanted. “Tusk out!”
The protests have been brewing for some time. Last year, first doctors and nurses, then farmers and finally 7,000 newly-unemployed teachers joined forces to demonstrate. The latter arrived at summer's end after the end of the school term and merged together as a result of demographic change.
That unions have managed to mobilize massive anti-government protests attests to the high levels of frustration in Poland. The catalyst was the raising of the retirement age from 65 to 67 and a weakening of workers' rights. In addition, economic growth is expected to top out at 1.1 percent.
Usually considered a star pupil amongst countries that have transitioned to a free-market economy, Poland is now seeing the other side of that coin - workers with poor contracts and high levels of unemployment.
Since its political transformation in 1989, Poland has demanded tough reforms of its citizens. Few have forgotten the introduction of a free-market economy, when prices increased abruptly while incomes remained unchanged and jobs were lost. Many companies were founded in the aftermath, which helped push the country forward.
Yet as the streets of Warsaw now show, not everyone benefitted. As of June 2013, unemployment stood at 13.1 percent, according to Poland's Central Statistical Office - a large increase on the 9.5 percent unemployment during Tusk's first full year in office in 2008.
“While the government was talking about growth, investment, and economic reforms, the losers of that transition don't feel spoken to, but rather forgotten and invisible,” Polish journalist Daniel Passent told DW. “The positive thing about the protests is that we can see this side again. Otherwise, the demands made by unions are fairly utopian.”
Unions push back
Demonstrators have been demanding a minimum wage considerably higher than the current 2.92 euros per hour ($3.89), a retirement age lower than 67, a better health care system and a more expansive social welfare state. A constitutional amendent would also allow popular referendums to become the vehicle of such reforms in the future.
Polish economists consider the proposals wrong and unfeasible. Many believe instead that Tusk's business-minded government should implement further market reforms. Unions, meanwhile, are threatening to greet such measures with nationwide protests.
Passent criticizes their attitude as inconsistent. “The problem is that the Solidarność union demands dialogue with the government on the one hand, and then agitates politically, and openly says it wants to bring Tusk down on the other,” he said. “That makes talks a bit difficult, of course.”
Recent polls show a majority of Poles in support of current protests. Just one-third are opposed to the demonstrations.
Boost for social conservatives?
Just two years ago, Tusk's popularity was high enough for voters to hand him a second term, a feat achieved by none of his 12 predecessors since 1989.
Since then, the 56-year-old's popularity has dropped so far that he is highly likely to lose an upcoming election. In parliament, his center-right coalition has a slim majority of just one vote after a number of parliamentarians withdrew from his party, the Civic Platform (PO), after an internal dispute.
Should dissatisfaction in the PO continue to grow, it could prompt new elections - and a comeback of one Jaroslaw Kaczyński. Both in Poland and abroad, there are fears of a return to power by the former prime minister and head of the nationalist conservative PiS party.
Kaczyński openly sympathizes with the controversial right-wing President Viktor Orban in Hungary, declaring a desire to see “Budapest in Warsaw.” Kaczyński is also divisive in Poland, part of the reason he was voted out of power in 2007 after little more than a year and replaced by the liberal, Europe- and Germany-friendly Tusk.
Today, many in Poland worry that there seem to be few alternatives.