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Free, Fair, & Regular Elections: Country Studies - Poland

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2010: 1 Political Rights, 1 Civil Liberties (Free)


From 1944 to 1989, Poland had a Soviet-imposed Communist government and was part of the Soviet bloc. The Solidarity trade union movement, born in 1980, carried out a decade-long struggle against communism, mostly underground due to the government's imposition of martial law. Solidarity's resistance eventually forced the Communist authorities to agree to hold semidemocratic elections for parliament in June 1989. Solidarity's massive electoral victory led to the fall of communism in Poland and the Soviet bloc generally. Poland joined NATO in 1999 and the European Union (EU) in 2004, bringing it fully within the community of democratic nations. Today, after nearly two centuries of foreign domination and brutal occupation by two nondemocratic powers, Poland is once again a free and independent country.

Poland is the 69th-largest country in the world by area (312,685 square kilometers), ranking it one place above Italy, with a population in 2006 of 38.1 million. After privatizing its economy in 1989, Poland has emerged with a fairly strong economy. In 2006, Poland ranked 70th ($8,190) in the world for gross national income (GNI) per capita, and 68th ($14,530) in GNI per capita measured by purchasing power parity (PPP), which takes into account inflation and other factors. However, Poland's level of unemployment in 2005 was 17.7 percent, well above the EU average.


Traditions of Independence, Freedom, and Partition

In the 13th and 14th centuries, Polish kings mandated that there would be religious freedom on Polish territory, making it a safe haven for Jews being persecuted and expelled from many other European kingdoms.

Poland's statehood dates back to 966 AD from Mieszko I's conversion to Catholicism and the establishment of the Piast and Jagiellonian dynasties (966–1572). In the 13th and 14th centuries, Polish kings mandated that there would be religious freedom on Polish territory, making it a safe haven for Jews being persecuted and expelled from many other European kingdoms. In 1569, the establishment of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth ended Poland's dynastic monarchy, introducing a political system where the sovereign's power was limited by law. During this era, nobles elected the king on the principle of non-hereditary succession—a rare system in Europe at the time. The Commonwealth's Henrician Rules accorded semidemocratic powers to the Sejm (parliament; the Sejm referred to both upper and lower chambers until 1918, when the Sejm became the more powerful lower house and the smaller upper house became known as the Senate), such as the need for parliamentary approval to levy taxes. In 1573, the Commonwealth also passed an act to formalize the guarantee of religious freedom (see "Freedom of Religion").

18th century Poland

In 1791, influenced by the Enlightenment, the Sejm adopted the Constitution of May Third, a model for constitutional monarchy. Yet, threatened by Poland's liberal invention, between 1772 and 1795, Austria, Prussia, and Russia partitioned Polish territory, beginning Poland's period of subjugation and resistance. In response to the loss of sovereignty, Poles organized underground universities, political parties, and even several uprisings, especially against Russian domination.

Independence, War, and Catastrophe

In the aftermath of World War I and the Russian Revolution in 1917, Poland regained independence and succeeded in driving back the Bolshevik Red Army to its eastern border. Poland's politics experienced a rebirth as conservative, liberal, and socialist parties fought for influence in the Sejm. However, independence leader Marshal Jozef Pilsudski became increasingly authoritarian. He weakened the opposition through propaganda and eventually through the imprisonment of leading opposition members. Poland's independence was put to an end in September 1939, when German and Soviet forces occupied the western and eastern portions of the country, respectively, as established by the secret provisions of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which divided Poland and the rest of Central and Eastern Europe into Soviet and German spheres of influence. Hitler broke the pact in 1941 by invading the Soviet Union and occupying all of Central and Eastern Europe. Polish and Jewish resistance movements could not stem the brutality of the occupation. It is estimated that six million Polish citizens were killed under the occupation, including three million Polish Jews.

The Communist Period

The Soviet Union repelled Germany's Wehrmacht forces and in 1944 occupied Poland and much of Central and Eastern Europe. A Soviet-backed Lublin Committee was recognized as Poland's new government, preempting the assumption of power by the Western-recognized government-in-exile in London.

Despite its traumatic wartime and postwar experiences, Polish society organized strong resistance to communism in the spirit of its previous national resistance movements.
The February 1945 Yalta Agreement, signed by the governments of the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States, formally ceded Poland and other parts of Central and Eastern Europe to a Soviet sphere of influence. Under Soviet rule, a terror campaign of show trials, executions, repression, and ideological conformity cemented control over the population. All liberal influences within Polish society were purged, although the country's Catholic Church did maintain some independence, which was rare in Soviet-bloc countries.

Polish Resistance

Despite its traumatic wartime and postwar experiences, Polish society organized strong resistance to communism in the spirit of its previous national resistance movements. There were revolts in 1956 (Poznan), 1968 (Warsaw), 1970 (the Baltic coast), and 1976 (Ursus and Radom). Finally, a national strike in 1980 provoked the signing of the Gdansk Accords in August, which led to the establishment of the first union independent of Communist control, Solidarnosc (Solidarity), under the leadership of a young electrician from the Gdansk shipyard named Lech Walesa. By December 1981, the military government of General Wojciech Jaruzelski sought to stem prodemocracy and opposition groups, including Solidarity, through the imposition of a period of martial law. The union, however, reorganized underground against the regime. Facing renewed strikes in 1988, General Jaruzelski accepted negotiations. The Roundtable Agreement, reached early in 1989, relegalized Solidarity and set Poland on the course toward democratization.

Lech Walesa


June 1989: A Semidemocratic Election Brings an Epochal Democratic Victory

The Roundtable Agreement included a plan for holding semidemocratic elections in June 1989. Since 1948, elections had simply been a routine for forcing everyone to vote, and to vote only for Communist and Communist satellite parties. Since balloting was not secret, registering a protest vote meant losing one's livelihood or home. Surprisingly, during the Roundtable negotiations, the Communist government agreed to hold semidemocratic elections, opening up to competition one-third of the Sejm's seats and all 100 seats in a newly revised Senate (although its powers were limited). These stipulations meant that a full two-thirds of the Sejm remained reserved for the Communists and their satellites. It became clear afterward that the regime believed it could control the process to a sufficient degree so that the contested seats would not matter. However, the campaign was carried out in an atmosphere of relative freedom, with very little government interference. The main issue was convincing Solidarity members that the Roundtable was not a "sellout" and that they would not be validating Communist rule with their vote.

In the end, citizens saw an opportunity to register a massive vote against the Communist regime. The vote in contested seats was overwhelmingly pro-Solidarity. Overall, Solidarity won all contested seats but one, a Senate seat won by a sympathetic independent. On the other hand, the Communists failed to receive the necessary 50 percent of votes cast, meaning that the government needed Solidarity's approval to hold a second round where no majority requirement was needed. Solidarity leaders agreed to such a second round and even agreed to allow General Jaruzelski to continue to serve as president, believing themselves to be bound by their agreement in the Roundtable. In the end, the enormity of the Communists' electoral defeat led to the desertion of the satellite parties and the collapse of the regime. In September 1989, the Solidarity bloc in parliament formed the first post-Soviet non-Communist government, helping to set in motion the fall of Communist regimes throughout the bloc.

Presidential and Parliamentary Elections

Since 1989, Poland has held regular, free, and fair elections with universal suffrage (the voting age is 18). Poland has a mixed presidential-parliamentary system. The president, who is the head of state and commander of the armed forces, is directly elected every five years and cannot serve more than two terms. The prime minister, who is the head of government, is chosen by the majority coalition in the Sejm. Elections for the Sejm are conducted by a proportional system using the standard d'Hondt method (favoring larger parties and coalitions). The Senate is selected according to an unusual voting scheme that puts together candidates in multiple-seat blocs.

Under Poland's democratic political system, there have been four presidential elections and five parliamentary elections, with several changes in the dominant party in power. In 1990, Solidarity leader Lech Walesa was elected president, setting another precedent as the first non-Communist president since before World War II. But Alexander Kwasniewski, leader of the post-Communist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), defeated Walesa in 1995 and was reelected in 2000. In 2005, Lech Kaczynski of the Law and Justice Party (PiS) was elected president. Parliamentary elections and governments also alternated between Solidarity-led coalitions (1990–93, 1997–2000) and SLD-led coalitions (1993–97, 2001–05).

The September 2005 parliamentary elections centered around the issues of high unemployment and the country's large economic disparities. The SLD suffered a major loss, while a majority of seats went to two "post-Solidarity" parties with competing platforms, PiS and Civic Platform. With more seats, PiS eventually formed a government in coalition with extreme right-wing and generally anti-EU parties committed to greater state involvement in the economy. In the December 2005 presidential elections, the PiS candidate, Lech Kaczynski, defeated the Civic Platform candidate in the second round.