Poland’s largest opposition coalition hopes to fill the streets of Warsaw with its supporters on Sunday, two weeks before a parliamentary election that polls suggest is too close to call.
Donald Tusk, the former European Council president who leads the main opposition coalition, has called on supporters to rally in central Warsaw at midday, in what he has dubbed the “march of a million hearts”, intended as a show of strength before the vote on 15 October.
“All those who want a better Poland will show up. Someone will say it’s a slogan, but everyone who has Poland in their hearts should want to show that they believe and have the strength,” said Tusk, in an interview aired on the Polish station TVN on Saturday.
“It will be one of the biggest manifestations in recent years in Europe. It will be one of the biggest events in Polish politics since regaining independence,” he claimed.
The rally comes as a brutal election campaign enters its final phase. Despite the rhetoric, Tusk still faces strong headwinds in his bid to become prime minister, including disunity in the opposition ranks and a vicious government campaign against his party, which has sought to portray him as an unpatriotic German stooge.
The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party came to power in 2015. A rightwing populist party that has also boosted social spending and won support in rural areas and smaller towns, it has been accused of eroding democratic norms and curtailing the rights of women and minorities.
The party has also clashed with Brussels and other western allies over rule of law issues, though those criticisms have become more muted since Poland became a key ally in the coalition supporting Ukraine.
Tusk was prime minister between 2007 and 2014, before leaving to take the European job, but has returned to Polish politics to lead what he claims is the most important election in decades, and the last chance to save democracy in Poland.
The opposition hopes the march will have a similar effect to one in June, in which an estimated 500,000 people came on to the streets of the capital, galvanised support for the opposition and kicked off the campaign in earnest.
However, while Tusk’s coalition and the ruling party both claim to be confident of a strong showing at the election, most observers say it is very hard to predict the eventual outcome.
PiS is likely to get more votes than Tusk’s Civic Coalition but the array of groups and potential alliances, combined with the way Poland’s electoral system works, means many factors could affect the final result.
One big question is whether smaller parties and coalitions will manage to get into parliament. For a workable coalition, Tusk is likely to need the support of leftwing parties and the Third Way coalition, which is hovering around the 8% threshold required to enter parliament. If they fall below, their votes would be redistributed among other parties but disproportionately favour the party with the largest share of the vote, thus likely to help PiS.
“If Third Way doesn’t make 8%, we are all completely screwed,” said a source in Tusk’s camp, showing the small margins that could determine Poland’s future. Another wild card is the far-right Confederation, which is drawing many supporters among young Poles and could potentially be the only ally with whom PiS could form a workable coalition.
Both the government and opposition have focused their campaigns on the disasters that await Poland if they lose. Government ministers have frequently accused Tusk of wanting to let in hundreds of thousands of migrants, and PiS chairman Jarosław Kaczyński has accused Tusk of selling the country to both Germany and Russia. “We have to say ‘No’ to Tusk,” he said during the campaign. “And if he doesn’t understand, we’ll say it again in German.”
PiS has based much of its campaign on fears over migration, trumpeting the government’s decision to build a wall on the border with Belarus to keep out migrants and refugees. The government’s tough stance on immigration has been dented by a scandal alleging that thousands of Polish work visas were corruptly sold to people in Asia and Africa, however, it remains unclear whether the scandal will register among the core PiS voting base.
Tusk and his coalition, meanwhile, have pointed to democratic erosion over years of PiS government and suggested that this vote is the last chance to save democracy in the country, as well as safeguarding the rights of women and LGBTQ+ people. He has also said the PiS government’s clashes with Brussels risk an eventual Polish exit from the EU.
“Because of their stupidity and incompetence, but also consciously, [this government is] leading Poland out of the European Union,” said Tusk at a rally in the city of Bydgoszcz on Wednesday.