Independence march: Smaller crowds expected at Poland’s nationalist rally

After the right suffered at a recent election and amid internal divisions, fewer people are likely to join the annual event.

People hold flags and flares as they attend the Independence March to mark the 104th anniversary of Polish independence, in Warsaw, Poland November 11, 2022 Slawomir Kaminski/Agencja via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. POLAND OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN POLAND.
People hold flags and flares as they attend the Independence March to mark the 104th anniversary of Polish independence in Warsaw, Poland, November 11, 2022 [File: Slawomir Kaminski/Agencja via Reuters]

Warsaw, Poland – Thousands are expected to join a nationalistic march in Poland’s capital Warsaw on Saturday, in what organisers describe as the “largest patriotic demonstration in Europe”.

In recent years, the annual Independence March has attracted up to 250,000 participants.

But this year, experts and participants expect a lower turnout, amid internal splits between leaders of the rally and after the Confederation Party, which is traditionally allied with the event, suffered a spectacular electoral defeat last month.

First organised in 2010 to commemorate Poland’s Independence Day, the march usually attracts right-wing, conservative and neo-fascist groups from across Europe and the United States.

It traditionally takes place against the backdrop of racist, xenophobic and anti-liberal chants.

Saturday’s march will begin at 2pm local time.

“It seems that the march will be much smaller and less visible,” Przemyslaw Witkowski, adjunct professor at Collegium Civitas and a researcher of political extremism, told Al Jazeera. “There is also a smaller number of people who signed up for the so-called March Guard – a group of volunteers operating, protecting, and controlling the event.”

But at the same time, smaller numbers could see more “radical” and violent forces at play, he said.

“Once there is a new, more left-wing government in place, we will face a much greater tension, which we might be able to feel even this year when the march still has a status of an annual event,” Witkowski said. “This decision might be reversed next year, and once the march is faced with registration issues, we can surely expect more violence.”

This year’s slogan, “Poland has not yet perished”, refers to the opening lyrics of the national anthem, which are then followed by “as long as we live”.

The song, written in 1797 when Poland was off the world’s map, was meant to raise the morale of the Polish Legions fighting alongside Napoleon in Italy. It conveyed the message that despite lacking a state of its own, the Polish nation had endured a struggle for independence.

Poland’s situation could not be more different from the one described in the song.

However, many on the political right believe that the results of the recent parliamentary election, in which the coalition of the liberal Civic Platform, conservative Third Way, and left-wing Lewica came out as winners, will lead to the gradual erosion of the country’s independence.

Traditionally pro-European and advocating for stronger European integration, liberal political forces are viewed with increased suspicion by the right including the Confederation Party, which was widely expected to score between 12-14 percent of the vote. It ended up with 8.6 percent.

“We can expect – with a high probability – a change in EU treaties, which will affect Poland’s sovereignty and Poland’s independence in the international arena, and in particular within the [European Union],” Bartosz Malewski, head of the Independence March association, told reporters in October.

“This slogan also expresses our position on the need to emphasise sovereignty and the threat to sovereignty.”

Other march participants agree.

Grzegorz Cwik, from the nationalist Niklot association, told Al Jazeera, said he fears the “federalisation of the European Union, cuts of military spending, and dismantling of social programmes”.

So far, the winning coalition has not built a government, but the recent election results are not the only challenges faced by the march organisers.

The former head of the Independence March association, Robert Bakiewicz, over the years moved closer towards Law and Justice, the former ruling nationalist party, and was widely seen as using the event for his own political gains.

Many march-goers also accused him of making the demonstration too mainstream and of fighting against radical nationalists, who in fact are the event’s founders.

“I think that for the past few years, the march’s formula was unfortunately more picnic-like, and hooligans, for example, stopped attending it,” Cwik said.

Eventually, a dispute between Bakiewicz and the march’s leadership close to Confederation’s circles led to a public exchange of accusations and the removal of Bakiewicz from his post.

Bakiewicz was also accused of keeping passwords to the Independence March’s social media accounts, effectively blocking the new leadership’s access to well-followed fan pages.

It is unlikely that he will show up at the march.

Source: Al Jazeera