GDANSK, Poland — Thirty-seven years ago Sunday, this port city on the Baltic Sea launched the Solidarity movement, a rebellion by shipyard workers that ushered in democracy to this formerly communist nation and helped spread political freedom throughout Eastern Europe.
Today, many Gdansk residents are in the political opposition mode again. This time, it is against policies of Poland’s current governing party, the right-wing PiS (Law and Justice) for moving away from hard-won democracy and back toward authoritarian rule.
Since it swept to power in 2015, PiS has pushed a controversial agenda that has given President Andrzej Duda more influence over the appointment of Supreme Court judges, a move that many Poles fear will undermine the independence of the judiciary branch and erode the system of checks and balances.
The party is also cracking down on press freedom, the right to public assembly and other political freedoms that opponents say are incompatible with the city’s history of social and political reforms.
“Gdansk is a symbol of freedom and opposition to the authoritarian rule,” Mayor Pawel Adamowicz told USA TODAY. “And because of our progressive past, we don’t like the direction that our present government is taking.”
Anti-government uprisings in Gdansk’s shipyard in 1980 sparked the creation of the Solidarity movement, the Soviet bloc’s first independent trade union, which eventually led to the collapse of communism in Poland in 1989. The Soviet Union dissolved two years later.
On Sept. 17, 1980, the union was officially formed, 17 days after strikers reached an accord with the government.
Poland’s current political direction has only minority support, according to an IBRISpoll in the spring that found just 29% support for the ruling party. Another survey conducted around the same time by Kantar Millward Brown showed approval of PiS declining, while support for the opposition party, the more moderate Civic Platform, has grown.
In Gdansk, backing for liberal politicians and ideas has been steadfast. “PiS has never been in power here,” said Adamowicz, who ran on the Civic Platform ticket and has been mayor of this city of nearly 600,000 people since 1998.
Throughout the spring and summer, massive anti-PiS protests took place across Poland. At one of the Gdansk rallies, thousands listened as Lech Walesa, Solidarity’s first leader and longtime city resident, urged protesters “to use all means to take back what we achieved for you.”
Walesa, who turns 74 this month, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 and was Poland’s president from 1990 to 1995. He has been an outspoken critic of PiS’ policies, warning that the party’s positions “are incompatible with democratic European values.”
Poland joined the European Union in 2004, when a more moderate government was in power, and the move helped incite strong economic growth.
Recently, however, the European Commission, which manages the EU, warned PiS that if it continued to curtail democracy and the independence of its high court, the country would have its voting rights suspended — the first time in the EU’s 24-year history that such a measure would be imposed.
In response, a government spokesman said Poland “won’t accept blackmail from EU officials,” adding that the country’s policies “are in compliance with the constitution and democratic rules.”
“I want to cry when I see what’s happening in this country,” Gdansk IT worker Dorota Szymanska said. “We’re moving backward toward a dictatorship.”
For Zbigniew Szczypinski, a retiree who worked in the Gdansk shipyard when the Solidarity movement started, the government’s move toward authoritarian rule “is very upsetting.”
Szczypinski, a former member of the Polish parliament, is angry “to see how the government is taking ownership of public institutions and uses the media for propaganda purposes. It smacks of fascism.”
His view is echoed by Andrzej Leszczynski, a visiting professor of philosophy at Gdansk University. “PiS is destroying our democratic institutions and sparking populist feelings,” he said.
Leszczynski, who attends most of the anti-government rallies in Gdansk, predicted dissent will continue.
“Because of the uprisings that led to the birth of Solidarity, people here have a spirit of defiance,” he said. “We can express our anger.”