WARSAW - Half a million protesters packed the streets of central Warsaw on Sunday, Poland's opposition organisers said, claiming one of the biggest anti-government demonstrations in the 30 years since the end of communism.
Lech Walesa, a former Polish president, Nobel Peace Prize winner and leader of the fight against communism, joined opposition figures at the head of the march ahead of legislative elections in the autumn.
People travelled from across the country after former prime minister Donald Tusk, head of the centrist opposition party Civic Platform (PO), called for the protest against "the high cost of living, swindling and lying, and for democracy, free elections and the EU".
The leaders of most opposition parties encouraged their supporters to join the march against the nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS) led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, which has been in power for almost eight years.
Smaller gatherings also took place in other cities and towns across Poland.
"City Hall estimates (the number of protesters) at 500,000 now," the organisers' spokesman Jan Grabiec told AFP.
Decked out in the red and white colours of the nation, demonstrators carried EU flags and placards proclaiming "Enough's enough", "No to authoritarian Poland" and blaming the ruling PiS party for exorbitant prices.
Once the head of the European Council, Tusk addressed the crowds in Warsaw's historic old town, saying the opposition's role was "of comparable importance" to that in the 1980s and the fight against communism.
"Democracy dies in silence. From today, there will be no more silence... despite the daily attacks by Kaczynski's PiS against its very foundations," Tusk said.
Walesa, who led the Solidarity union in a successful battle against communism, has long been absent from politics.
He told the marchers he had been "patiently" waiting for the day when the nationalist party and Kaczynski will be forced out.
"Mr. Kaczynski, we have come to get you. The day has finally arrived," Walesa said.
Piotr Mroz, a 62-year-old construction worker, feared "if it doesn't change now, we will have Hungary and Turkey here", referring to countries frequently accused of flouting democratic standards.
"Our government is authoritarian. They want to make Poland a country that resembles Russia," Karolina Sieminska, a 22-year-old French student, told AFP.
- 'Circus' -
Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki compared the protests to a "circus".
"It makes me laugh a little when the old foxes who have been in politics for years organise an anti-government march and present it as a spontaneous civic protest," he was quoted as saying by news agency PAP.
Most polling suggests the PiS party will win the upcoming elections with around 30 percent of the vote but without obtaining a majority.
That could open the way for the opposition parties to take power if they maintain their current support levels and manage to agree among themselves.
The June 4 protest march day is the 34th anniversary of the first partly free elections held in Poland which were followed by the defeat of communism in Europe.
Walesa became the nation's first democratically elected president in 1990, after becoming the leader of the communist world's first free trade union in the 1980s.