Polish opposition holds massive Warsaw rally ahead of tight election

By Justyna Pawlak

WARSAW (Reuters) - Hundreds of thousands of people held an opposition rally in Warsaw on Sunday, two weeks ahead of an election that the liberal Civic Platform (PO) says may decide Poland's future in the European Union and its democratic standing.

Opinion polls suggest the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) government could win the vote but may struggle to form a majority amid discontent among some over rising living costs and concern over an erosion of democratic checks and balances.

Warsaw city authorities said about a million people attended in the capital's biggest rally on record. Public broadcaster TVP, which independent media observers say has become a government mouthpiece under PiS rule, quoted police saying about 100,000 people had joined.

Online news channel onet.pl said that according to its calculations some 600,000-800,000 people attended the rally.

Some carried banners saying "PiSexit" or "The cat can stay", referring to the pet animal of PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

The opposition is hoping the march galvanises voters to participate in the election, giving it a chance to come ahead.

"Big change is coming. This is a sign of Poland's rebirth," PO leader Donald Tusk told crowds gathered in a central Warsaw square, many people waving Polish and EU flags.

Tusk, a former European Council president, has said PiS could aim to take Poland out of the EU, something the party denies, and has framed the election as crucial for minority and women's rights.

PiS, in power since 2015, has campaigned on a pledge to keep migrants out of Poland, saying that was key for national security, and to continue funnelling money towards families and the elderly.

"I want to be free, be in the EU, I want to have a say, I want to have free courts," said Hanna Chaciewicz, a 59-year-old dentist from Otwock, a town outside of Warsaw.

PiS denies western criticism that it has subverted democratic norms and says its reforms of the judiciary are aimed at making the country fairer and free of vestiges of communism, while its changes to public media rid it of foreign influence.

But it has yet to gain access to billions of euros in EU COVID recovery funds which Brussels has withheld over the Polish court reforms.

"Everybody is investing in jobs, in fighting the climate catastrophe. And we have been denied this money because someone has decided to destroy democracy in Poland," Warsaw mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, a senior PO member, told those at the rally.

(Reporting by Justyna Pawlak, Marek Strzelecki and Kuba Stezycki; Editing by Hugh Lawson, William Maclean)