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December 17, 2016

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Two days of anti-government protests have exposed clashing views on the shape of Poland’s democracy, with a European Union leader and the protesters saying it is threatened by the government, and the prime minister insisting the threat is coming from the opposition’s actions.

European Council President Donald Tusk and Poland’s Prime Minister Beata Szydlo made separate comments Saturday on the rising political tension between Poland’s conservative government and the pro-EU opposition.

They spoke after protesters rallied outside the presidential palace and the parliament building in Warsaw for a second day over a ruling party’s plan to restrict journalists’ access to lawmakers in parliament.

Tusk, Poland’s former prime minister, invoked the word “dictatorship” and reminded his audience of protests in Poland under communism that ended in bloodshed. “I appeal to those who hold real power in our country to respect the people, the principles and values of the constitution, the standing procedures and good practices,” Tusk said in Wroclaw, southwest Poland, where he was attending a cultural event.

He warned that whoever was undermining the “European model of democracy” in Poland was “exposing us all to strategic risks.” A few hours later, Szydlo said in a nationwide televised address that Poland was a firm democracy and that the opposition was guided by a sense of “helplessness and frustration” over having lost power and was hurting Poland’s interest with its actions.

“Noise, perturbation, destabilization have, alas, become the tools of the opposition parties,” Szydlo said, appealing for dialogue, responsibility and calm. The crowd of a few thousand in Warsaw chanted “Freedom! Equality! Democracy!” and waved Polish and European Union flags, a reflection of the pro-European views of many liberal, urban Poles who oppose the ruling party. Protests were held in Krakow and Lodz, too.

“I feel terrified when I see what is going on around,” said Maria Krykiel, a retired bookkeeper. “Only divisions and no calm. Where will that take us?” President Andrzej Duda, who is allied with the ruling party, expressed deep concern and declared a readiness to mediate in the dispute.

The ruling party, led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has increased welfare spending and still remains popular with many Poles, particularly those outside of the cities and on modest incomes. Some protesters held up copies of the constitution, to show they believe it was not being observed by the ruling party. They also chanted “Solidarity!” reflecting how many link today’s protests to the anti-communist opposition of the past.

Ryszard Petru, head of the Modern opposition party, told the crowd in Warsaw that Poles would not accept the “dictators” who are trying to restrict the access of journalists to parliament. He even suggested an early election.

In Poland’s biggest parliamentary crisis in years, opposition lawmakers protested the government media plan Friday, blocking a vote on the budget. Governing party members then voted in another hall, but the opposition says the vote was flawed and illegal.

Opposition lawmakers are now demanding a repeat vote on Tuesday. The Senate speaker was to meet with media representatives to discuss the new rules for reporters.

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