Freedom House (Author)
From the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries, Poland and Lithuania maintained a powerful state that Prussia, Austria, and Russia subsequently destroyed in three successive eighteenth-century partitions. Poland enjoyed a window of independence from 1918 to 1939 but was invaded by Germany and the Soviet Union at the opening of World War II and then forced into the Communist sphere at the end of the war. Polish citizens endured decades of Soviet domination until 1989, the year the Solidarity trade union movement, led by Lech Walesa, forced the government to accept democratic reforms.
Fundamental democratic and free market–oriented reforms were introduced during the 1989–1991 period. Later changes were stimulated by a need to adjust the Polish legal system to European Union (EU) requirements as the country sought to join the expanding bloc. Political parties with a background in the Solidarity movement held power from 1989 to 1993 (in several coalitions) and from 1997 to 2001 (as Solidarity Election Action, or AWS). In 1995, former Communist Alexander Kwasniewski replaced Solidarity’s Walesa as president and was subsequently reelected by a large margin of votes in 2000.
In September 2001, voters handed the government of Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek a decisive defeat in parliamentary elections. In the Sejm (lower house of Parliament), a coalition of the center-left Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) and the Union of Labor (UP) took 216 seats out of 460, falling short of a majority. That led them to form a government with the leftist Polish Peasant Party (PSL), and SLD leader Leszek Miller became the new prime minister. The Solidarity movement, now a looser coalition known as the Coalition Electoral Action Solidarity of the Right, and the right-leaning Freedom Union (UW) failed to secure a single seat.
On May 1, 2004, Poland joined the EU along with nine other countries, most of them in formerly Communist Central and Eastern Europe. However, Poland has since been a somewhat awkward EU member, fighting aggressively over its share of the EU’s budget and its voting privileges. The draft constitution for the EU might have failed a referendum in Poland if it had not first been defeated in France and the Netherlands in May and June 2005.
In March 2004, Miller announced that he would resign as prime minister, effective in May. His SLD-led government’s popularity suffered from the effects of a weak economy, high unemployment, and high budget deficits, and was also dogged by allegations of corruption. The final blow was the defection of a group of SLD members of Parliament, who announced their intention to form a new party, the Social Democratic Party of Poland. Miller was replaced by the SLD’s Marek Belka, who served as a caretaker prime minister until elections in 2005.
In the September 2005 legislative elections, Law and Justice (PiS), a conservative party with strong anti-Communist roots, won a stunning victory by increasing its Sejm seat total from 44 to 152, while the SLD fell from winning 216 seats in 2001 (along with its UP partner) to just 56 seats (now without the UP). The center-right Civic Platform (PO) party placed second, winning 133 seats. PiS is led by identical twin brothers Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Jaroslaw was the party’s original choice for prime minister, but when it appeared that Lech might win the presidency—and that Poles might be skeptical of having twin brothers in the country’s two most powerful jobs—Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz became prime minister–designate instead. In the October presidential election, Lech Kaczynski won a surprise victory over the PO’s Donald Tusk. Shortly afterward, having failed to reach a coalition accord with the PO, PiS formed a minority government that relied on cooperation from some of the smaller right-wing parties in Parliament. Marcinkiewicz later secured a slim majority by forming a coalition with the leftist-populist, agrarian Self-Defense Party (Samoobrona) and the socially conservative, Catholic-oriented League of Polish Families (LPR).
The prime minister won popularity for running a capable, modest government. However, in July 2006 he was replaced by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, ostensibly on the grounds that Kaczynski, as the formal head of PiS, should also be the prime minister.
Government stability declined in the second half of the year. The finance minister was fired in June, under suspicion of ties to Poland’s Communist-era intelligence services, only to be reinstated later. Lech Kaczynski canceled a summit planned for July with the leaders of France and Germany over a satirical article in a German newspaper. The government also began a process of reforming the military intelligence service in late summer. The ruling coalition broke apart in September over demands by Samoobrona’s leader, Andrzej Lepper, for greater social spending, especially on farms. In October, Jaroslaw Kaczynski reformed the PiS-Samoobrona-LPR coalition, but only after a period of political disorder. Kaczynski at one point threatened to call early elections. However, PiS members were caught on tape offering Samoobrona members high jobs for defecting from their party. This hurt PiS’s anticorruption image and weakened Kaczynski’s election threat, as the opposition PO gained in popularity. When the coalition was re-formed, it was smaller and weaker, with poor prospects for major reforms and the threat of future internal conflicts remaining.
Over the past several years, Poland’s foreign and domestic policies have begun to diverge from those of many other EU members. Polish troops played a prominent role in the stabilization of Iraq following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, which countries like France and Germany opposed. In November 2005, Poland became the subject of unwelcome attention when it was accused of cooperating with the U.S.’s CIA in running a secret prison for terrorism detainees, charges the Polish government has denied. A preliminary final report by the Parliament of the European Union, released in December 2006, supported the charges against Poland, and the report’s author suggested that Poland’s votes in the EU’s Council of Ministers could even be suspended. Poland protested strongly against both the conclusion of its involvement and the suggestion of punishment; Poland’s position was supported by other country members of the center-right bloc in the European Parliament. The final report was scheduled to be released in January 2007.
Poland’s relationship with its EU partners deteriorated generally in 2006. The government protested Europe’s generally tolerant policy toward Russia, and used its veto to block the beginning of EU-Russian talks. Restrictions on the independence of the central-bank governor also worried EU members, who expect Poland to adopt the euro. Poland’s social conservatism—including a failed attempt to reference “God” in the draft EU constitution—further reflected the country’s differences with many EU partners.
Poland is an electoral democracy. Voters elect the president for five-year terms and members of the bicameral Parliament for four-year terms. The president’s appointment of the prime minister is subject to confirmation by the 460-seat Sejm, the lower house of Parliament. The prime minister is responsible for most government policy, but the president has an important role, especially in foreign policy. The 100-member Senate, the upper house, can delay and amend legislation but has few other powers.
The political party system is fragmented. For years, the largest and most coherent groups were the AWS and SLD; however, the former has disappeared from Parliament, and the latter was reduced to a fraction of its former power in the 2005 elections, which were deemed free and fair. PiS and the PO have become the two most important parties, while others such as Samoobrona and the LPR are small but powerful.
Poland’s membership in the EU required it to meet the bloc’s “Copenhagen criteria,” including “stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities.” In its final report on Poland’s progress, issued in 2003, the European Commission said, “Poland has reached a high level of alignment with the acquis [the body of EU laws] in most policy areas.” The report did criticize slow progress on corruption, however. That year, the SLD-led government faced allegations that party figures were linked to organized crime and corruption. A bribery and influence-peddling scandal involving the drafting of a new media-ownership law helped bring down SLD Prime Minister Leszek Miller in 2004. New allegations of corruption surfaced the same year involving an alleged bribe by a Russian oil company to a Polish government minister for the sale of a Polish refinery. The PiS government elected in 2005 made anti-corruption a priority, and the PiS party (including the Kaczynski twins) has generally been seen as cleaner than its predecessors in government. However, that reputation was tainted by accusations that it had offered other parties’ members top jobs for defecting to join PiS. The use of Communist-era intelligence files—including material of dubious veracity—has also been seen by much of the public as potentially corrupt, used by the powerful to discredit enemies. Poland was ranked 61 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The 1997 constitution guarantees freedom of expression and forbids censorship. However, the country’s libel law treats slander as a criminal offense, and journalists oppose the growing number of related lawsuits. Infringements on media freedom include gag orders and arbitrary judicial decisions concerning investigations of individuals affiliated with parties in power. The law requires the media to maintain “respect for Christian values,” and in 2005, a journalist was convicted of insulting the pope in a newspaper article, fined $6,500, and given a suspended jail sentence. A recent spate of criminal libel cases, in which enormous damages were sought, is thought to have given rise to self-censorship by journalists.
The state respects freedom of religion and does not require religious groups to register. However, registered religious groups enjoy a reduced tax burden. In 2003, the Roman Catholic Church for the first time met with serious accusations of sexual impropriety by clerics in Poland, an overwhelmingly Catholic country where the Church holds great influence. The Church responded to the charges with investigations and dismissals, including that of a bishop. Academic freedom is generally respected, though one rarely invoked law threatens anyone who “publicly insults or humiliates a constitutional institution” with a fine or up to two years’ imprisonment.
Polish citizens can petition the government, assemble legally, organize professional and other associations, and engage in collective bargaining. Public demonstrations require permits from local authorities. In 2004 and 2005, gay-rights groups were denied permits to march in Warsaw, but did so anyway. In 2006, the march was allowed but still suffered minor violence (such as egg throwing) and required heavy security. Civil society in Poland was seen as hastening the downfall of the Communist regime and remains active. Since the 1980s, when shipyard workers in Gdansk launched a national strike and formed the Solidarity labor union, Poland has had a robust labor movement. However, labor leaders have complained of harassment by employers.
Poland has an independent judiciary, but courts are notorious for delays in administering cases. In its 2003 accession report, the last before Poland joined the EU, the European Commission pronounced Poland ready to join the union, but noted that “despite steady progress, efforts are still needed to improve the effectiveness and transparency of the judiciary … In general the level of public trust in the efficiency and fairness of the judicial system remains low.” State prosecutors have proceeded slowly on investigations into graft and corruption, contributing to concerns that they are subject to considerable political pressure. Prison conditions are fairly poor by European standards, and pretrial detention periods can be lengthy.
Ethnic minorities generally enjoy generous protections and rights provided under Polish law, including funding for bilingual education and publications and privileged representation in Parliament; their political parties are not subject to a minimum vote threshold of 5 percent to achieve representation. Poland’s once-vibrant Jewish community was reduced to a tiny minority by the Holocaust during World War II and subsequent emigration. Poland’s other minority groups are small, but some, particularly the country’s 30,000 Roma, suffer discrimination in employment and housing, racially motivated insults, and occasional attacks. Poland’s homosexual community is active, but faces discrimination as a result of a generally conservative, Catholic culture and occasional restrictive actions, such as frequent clashes over gay-rights marches.
Women have made inroads in the professional sphere and are employed in a wide variety of occupations. A number of women hold high positions in government and the private sector, and Poland’s first nominee to the European Commission was a woman, Danuta Huebner. However, domestic violence against women is a problem in Poland. Abortion is illegal unless the health of the mother is at risk, the pregnancy results from rape or incest, or the fetus is irreparably damaged, and the law is strictly enforced. As in several other formerly Communist countries in the region, trafficking in women and girls for the purposes of prostitution remains a problem.