100 Years Later: Polish March for Freedom shows Divided Nation

Independence March in Warsaw, Poland || Photo credit to Dawid Małecki on unsplash.com

Independence March in Warsaw, Poland || Photo credit to Dawid Małecki on unsplash.com

The opinions reflected in this OpEd are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of staff, faculty and students of The King's College.


On Sunday, November 11, the world had a day of quiet reflection on the wars of the past, but for Poland, seized with a national fever of elections, marches, and celebrations of independence, it was the apex of political tensions. The long columns of marchers demonstrated, more than anything, that there is not one Poland but two. As the pro-European and the nationalist visions for the future of the country collide, the old chief of the liberals prepares to leave the helm of the European Union to lead his former party against the ruling conservatives.

The fervor spiked in late October with the regional and provincial elections in Poland. Two weeks before the U.S. midterm elections, the Polish people in the city and the countryside went to the voting booths to choose their local governments––the urban areas overwhelmingly favoring the centrist liberal Civil Coalition (KO), the rural holding fast to the ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party (Pis). In a win for all political parties, the voter turnout this year was the highest since the very first time free elections were held in Poland in 1989.

The resulting political landscape of Poland differs little from that of the state of California–– the sea of conservative countryside is studded here and there with urban liberal strongholds. Among these are the cities of Warsaw, Lodz, Gdansk and Wroclaw, surrounded by towns and villages where the Catholic clergy and the bountiful social welfare programs help PiS to consistently pull far ahead of all competition.

On the centennial anniversary of the Polish independence, 250,000 marchers and protesters sang patriotic songs and raised flags of red and white as they marched upon the greatest of liberal strongholds––Warsaw, the Polish capital.

The 2018 Independence March, the biggest such parade since the first one was held in 2010, the mayor of Warsaw attempted to halt just days before the centennial, ostensibly to avoid the violence and chaos that accompanied last year’s procession.

The organization in charge of the annual march took the mayor’s order to court and won, heralding a resounding victory for the nationalists and a vindication of their right to free assembly, vested in the Constitution of the Republic of Poland. In order to allay wide-ranging concerns and perhaps to tame the more radical elements of the movement, the PiS government announced the country’s top officials would stride the streets of Warsaw alongside their people, and so they did.

The country’s President, Andrzej Duda, the Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, and the leader of the PiS party himself, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, walked shoulder-to-shoulder with soldiers and civilians carrying banners with “For You Poland” and “God, Honor, Fatherland.” Others burned the flag of the European Union.

Polish nationalists light flares as they take part in the March of Independence 2017 in Warsaw  ( EPA ).

Polish nationalists light flares as they take part in the March of Independence 2017 in Warsaw ( EPA ).

The extraordinary turnout and the peaceful unfolding of the march showed the conservatives in power have been paying attention and have learned how to control the volatile energy of the far-right firebrands. PiS may have lost the battle for the mayorship of Warsaw and with it the prospect for permanent control of the city, but it did manage, through a canny handling of the national sentiment, to ride the wave of the popular zeal into the capital and plant its flag on the Belvedere Palace, if only temporarily. Without question, the success of the independence day march will be nigh impossible to match by the opposition’s own efforts to energize their base.

But the liberals may have an ace up their sleeve in Donald Tusk, the former boss of the strongest opposition party, the Civic Platform. Heading the centrist liberal government in the years 2007 to 2014 as Prime Minister, Tusk was then chosen by the European heads of state to lead the European Council, a body that sets the vision for the integration of the continent. His second term as President of the Council ends in November 2019, in time for the 2020 presidential elections in Poland. Hardened by prolonged fights with foreign nationalist leaders, notably with Theresa May’s Tory government over Brexit and with Donald Trump over the preservation of the rules-based international order, Mr. Tusk returns to his homeland ready to battle PiS for the future of Poland. What kind of future?

In his speech on November 10, on the eve of the centennial of independence, in the city of Lodz, Tusk said emphatically that Poland’s European identity does not take away from her own distinct national character, let alone curtail her freedom. He denounced nationalist and isolationist policies aimed against the European Union––coming from Warsaw or from Washington––concluding that anyone who stands against Poland’s strong position in the united Europe stands against the Polish independence. Characteristically good-natured and composed, Tusk nonetheless spoke in strong, uncompromising terms, conveying a sense of urgency in his task to salvage not only Poland but Europe from the rising waves of populism and disunion. To say that a genuine anti-European movement is on the rise is not fanciful either, as the flags of the Italian self-described fascist organization Forza Nuova at this year’s independence march, among others, would suggest. The warning landed––the audience was ecstatic, mobilized. With the parliamentary elections in spring of 2019 looming close, the liberal opposition will try and sally out.

Tusk remains the most likely candidate to defeat the incumbent President, Andrzej Duda, elevated to the highest office back in 2015 on the PiS ticket. Even after the speech in Lodz––his first direct intervention in the domestic politics in Poland since he left to lead the European Council––it remains uncertain if Tusk will actually throw his hat in the ring for the presidential race in 2020.

But if he decides to lead from behind, others will step in to carry on his continental vision for the Polish freedom and happiness tied to the union of European nations, just as PiS is bound to advance its stricter, national interpretation.

A century has passed, but the struggle to define Poland’s place in the world yet divides the nation.

OpinionJan Gerberjangerber