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WARSAW (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of protesters marched through the Polish capital on Saturday in one of the largest demonstrations in years to demand more jobs and higher pay, blaming Prime Minister Donald Tusk's government for failing to tackle unemployment.
The city council said about 100,000 people turned out for the march organized by trade unions, waving flags and blowing trumpets as they walked peacefully through central Warsaw.
The Polish economy has seen two decades of uninterrupted growth but narrowly avoided recession at the start of the year. It has since shown signs of picking up but the recovery has been too weak to significantly bring down unemployment, especially among youths. The jobless rate stands at 13.1 percent, after hitting a six-year high of 14.4 percent in February.
"We have come to Warsaw to show a red card to the government," said Tomasz Danielewicz, 43, a nurse taking part in the march.
Unions are opposed to new legislation that gives employers more flexibility in determining the working hours of employees. One of the banners carried by protesters read: "Part-time job, full-time exploitation".
"The government gets its last warning today. If it draws no conclusions, we will block the whole country, all roads and highways," Jan Guz, leader of the OPZZ union told demonstrators.
The economic slowdown has brought Tusk's government approval ratings to their lowest levels since he came to power six years ago, and opinion polls from recent weeks show his party has lost ground to the opposition.
In August, a poll showed the ruling Civic Platform trailed the main opposition party by a record 11 points, but a different poll this week showed Tusk's party was still in the lead.
The government, which has won praise from investors for its pro-business policies, has also raised the retirement age to 67 from 65 for men and upped the value added tax by one percentage point to 23 percent to curb the fiscal deficit, angering many voters.
In a bid to breathe life into the largest central European economy, Tusk's cabinet loosened fiscal discipline earlier this year and widened the planned budget deficit. It also decided to shift treasury bonds held by private pension funds back to the state to give it more room to stimulate growth.
But the effects of those moves will take time to have an impact on the economy and stem the frustration of many in Poland, which has been seen as a beacon of political stability in the region after Tusk won an unprecedented second term in office in 2011.
"One has to protest because it is getting worse," said a young woman named Ola. "Compared to Western states we are a sinking ship, despite the fact that we are in the center of Europe and we have the prerequisites to become a European powerhouse."
The next scheduled parliamentary election is not until late 2015, but Tusk's Civic Platform party will compete for votes in elections to regional governments and the European Parliament next year.
Additional reporting by William Fox and Karol Jurga; Editing by Janet Lawrence