WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Thousands of Poles in cities and towns across the country marched Saturday in freezing temperatures to protest a slew of measures by the country's new right-wing government which they say are anti-democratic.
The motto of the marches, the most recent of several that have taken place since Law and Justice took power in November, was "in defense of your freedom."
Protesters are furious about government steps which they fear limit checks and balances on the party, which has a majority in parliament and also controls the presidency. Soon after taking power, Law and Justice took steps to curb the power of the Constitutional Tribunal, increased government control over state media, and widened the scope for police surveillance.
Protesters in Warsaw shouted "democracy!" and many carried Polish and European Union flags.
"We want to keep our democracy and freedom," Mateusz Kijowski, leader of the Committee for the Defense of Democracy, the group that has organized the recent protests, told the crowd in Warsaw. "In Poland, we now have one center of power. There is no possibility of control, of verification, and this threatens our freedom."
The European Union recently opened a preliminary assessment of whether the laws on the constitutional court and media violate the bloc's fundamental principle of the rule of law. That could ultimately lead to suspending Polish voting rights in the 28-nation bloc.
In Warsaw, an estimated 10,000 people gathered in front of the office of Prime Minister Beata Szydlo before marching to the palace of President Andrzej Duda.
One protester held up a sign that said "Happy New Year 1984" and explained that she fears life in Poland could begin to resemble the authoritarian state depicted in George Orwell's novel "1984."
"We are afraid that things could get that bad if we don't protest now," said Anna Straszewska, a 42-year-old art historian. "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."
Adam Mazanik, 40, carried an EU flag as his protest against Szydlo removing EU flags from government press briefings, preferring the Polish flag only. He said he believes the EU flag represents the very best values in Europe, including equality and freedom.