Former Polish president and anti-communist leader Lech Walesa met Monday with disabled people and their parents who have been staging a sit-in in the parliament for over a month, offering them his solidarity and strongly denouncing the country’s populist government.
Several young adults in wheelchairs and their parents, their full-time caretakers, want more state aid, a demand the government has not fully met. While the numbers of protesters are small, their occupation of a corridor in parliament has received heavy coverage in the Polish media, becoming a headache for the conservative ruling party.
The parliament speaker has reacted by restricting access to some reporters, which itself is sparking complaints to prosecutors.
Walesa, a strong government critic, joined them Monday morning for about an hour, taking a seat and telling them: “You called me, so here I am.”
“I would like to make a contribution to your fight,” Walesa said.
The ruling party, Law and Justice, is strongly pro-Catholic and won elections in 2015 promising to help the poor and other disadvantaged people, but now faces accusations of treating society’s weakest members in a heartless way.
The president, prime minister and the minister for social policies have all visited the protesters, and the president this month signed a law raising the monthly benefits for disabled adults to 1,030 zlotys (239 euros; $281) from 865 zlotys. But they say the state can’t afford to pay them the additional 500 zlotys per month that they seek.
The protesters have asked to also meet party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, but there has been no meeting. Kaczynski has been recently hospitalized, reportedly for knee surgery.
Law and Justice leaders also accuse opposition lawmakers, who let the protesters into parliament, of using them as a tool in a political fight. With criticism rising, the parliament issued a statement on the weekend saying officials there were treating the protesters with “respect and empathy.”
Walesa listened to one of the mothers saying the families have felt humiliated by the government. Most of his comments were directed at criticizing the government.
“Those few people who are in power are chiefly intent on sowing discord. Through quarrels and feuding they are trying to stay in power,” Walesa said. “We must remove these people from power as soon as we can. They fight evil with evil and lawlessness with lawlessness.”
Walesa was the leader of the Solidarity freedom movement in the 1980s that helped topple communism. As Poland emerged as a new democracy he served as president from 1990-95.
Today he is deeply disliked by leaders of Law and Justice, who accuse him of having collaborated with the communist secret police in the 1970s and of mismanaging the country’s transition from communism to democracy, allowing former communists to continue to have too much influence in the new system.
Walesa denies those accusations.