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.