Huge crowds marched through Poland’s capital, Warsaw, on Sunday, converging around a giant flag commemorating a 1945 uprising against Nazi Germany, as opponents of the governing party sought to rally voters for a critical general election that they see as the last chance to save the country’s hard-won democratic freedoms.
The Warsaw city government, which is controlled by the opposition, put the crowd at a million people at its peak. But state-controlled television, which mostly ignored the event, instead broadcasting a pre-election convention by the governing Law and Justice party, estimated fewer than 100,000 had turned out, citing police sources.
The march was the biggest of display of antigovernment sentiment since Poland’s Solidarity trade union movement rallied against communism in the 1980s. It set the stage for the final stretch of an increasingly nasty election campaign. Poland, bitterly polarized on everything from relations with the rest of Europe to abortion rights, will hold a general election on Oct. 15 that will decide whether the conservative Law and Justice party secures an unprecedented third term in a row in government.
In a speech peppered with references to Poland’s past struggles for liberty, Donald Tusk, the main opposition leader, appealed for patriots to cast out a right-wing nationalist government that he said was pitting Poles against Poles, defiling the legacy of national heroes who had resisted foreign occupation.
He promised to end what he called “the Polish-Polish war” stoked by the governing party’s denunciation as traitors Poles who deviate from traditional Catholic values or look to the European Union for help against discrimination and government meddling in the judiciary.
“Change for the better is inevitable,” he said.
Billed as “the march of a million hearts,” the event featured Polish and E.U. flags, as well as a few American ones waved by Poles with family in the United States.
Before leading a huge crowd in singing the Polish national anthem, which starts with the words “Poland has not yet perished,” Mr. Tusk said the opening line “has never had such a strong and authentic ring as it does today.”
Seeking to reclaim patriotism from Law and Justice, which presents itself as a protector of Polish values and sovereignty against E.U. bureaucrats in Brussels and accuses Mr. Tusk of being a stooge for Germany or Russia or at times both countries, the opposition leader said: “They are not Poland. We are Poland!”
Speaking to his own supporters at a pre-election party convention in the southern city of Katowice, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Law and Justice’s chairman and Poland’s de facto leader, mocked Mr. Tusk as “such an idiot” whose victory would lead to the country’s enslavement by foreign powers.
He claimed that Mr. Tusk’s term as prime minister, from 2007 to 2014, had made “Poland subordinate to external forces,” especially Germany and Russia. Law and Justice, he said, needed “mobilization, faith, determination and work” to “ensure that Tusk’s system does not return to Poland.”
Recent opinion polls give Law and Justice around 38 percent of the vote, compared with 30 percent for Mr. Tusk’s Civic Coalition, an alliance of centrist and center-left forces and smaller left and far-right parties. The gap narrowed sharply over the summer, but after a full-throated media campaign demonizing Mr. Tusk and his supporters as enemies of the Roman Catholic Church, Law and Justice picked up support, particularly in areas that rely on the party-controlled state broadcasting system.
No single party is expected to win a majority in the vote, and the shape of the next government will depend on which of the front-runners — Law and Justice or Civic Coalition — can find allies to form a coalition.
As Mr. Tusk spoke to supporters in Warsaw, Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, addressed the Law and Justice convention in southern Poland, hammering the party’s favorite theme that the opposition serves German and Russian interests.
“Tusk was their handmaiden,” he claimed, referring to energy deals struck between Berlin and Moscow while Mr. Tusk was Poland’s prime minister before taking a job in Brussels as president of the European Council — another strike against him, in the governing party’s view.
Worried about competition from Konfederacja, a far-right group that has been vocal about reducing Poland’s assistance to Ukraine, Law and Justice has sent mixed messages in recent weeks about its policy toward Kyiv. It has insisted that it would not do anything to reduce the flow of weapons to fight Russia’s invading forces, while suggesting recently that it might do just that.
Less than two weeks ago, Mr. Morawiecki told a national broadcaster that Poland was “no longer transferring any weapons to Ukraine, because we are now arming ourselves with the most modern weapons.” Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, later walked back Mr. Morawiecki’s remarks, clearly made for electoral reasons but still unsettling for Poland’s foreign partners.
Desperate to hang on to voters in rural areas, an important base of support, Law and Justice has vowed to halt the import of cheap Ukrainian grain and protect Polish farmers from the damage this has caused to their income. The grain was meant to just transit through Poland, but some of it was siphoned off for sale on the domestic market.
Pre-election promises by the Polish government, along with those of Slovakia and Hungary, to halt all deliveries of Ukrainian grain did not stop the leader of a Polish farm lobbying group, Agrounia, from speaking on Sunday in support of the opposition.
Law and Justice’s pre-election shifts and maneuvers have confused and annoyed fellow European countries that previously viewed Poland as a solid anchor of the West’s support for Ukraine, particularly those like Germany that Warsaw has repeatedly chided for not being steadfast enough in helping Kyiv.
Janusz Michalak, 71, a retired logistics manager who joined the march with his wife, Alicija, said he had lived through communism and worried that Law and Justice — through cynical maneuvers to win support, the tight control of state broadcasting and the demonization of its political foes — want “us silent under their boot like the communists did.”
“If we don’t change this government, democracy dies in Poland,” he added.
Anatol Magdziarz contributed reporting.