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

Poland Country Study

Rankings in Freedom in the World: 2016. Status: Free. Freedom Rating: 1; Political Rights: 1; Civil Liberties: 1


Since 1989, following two centuries dominated by foreign occupation and control with only a brief period of full sovereignty (the Second Republic from 1918 to 1939), Poland is once again a free and independent country.  From 1944 to 1989, Poland had a Soviet-imposed Communist government and was part of the Soviet bloc. The birth of Solidarność, the Solidarity trade union movement, in August 1980 marked the beginning of the end of that period. After 16 months of legal existence, the union was outlawed and forced underground in December, 1981 when the government imposed martial law and imposed harsh repression. But the union’s determined civic resistance over seven years led to an agreement with the Communist authorities (the Roundtable Accords) that re-legalized Solidarność, allowed freedom of expression, and instituted quasi-democratic elections for parliament. Although the agreement ensured a communist-led majority in parliament, Solidarity's massive electoral victory in the June 1989 elections delegitimized the regime and led to the fall of the communist government — events that propelled the fall of communism in the Soviet bloc generally. Poland adopted a new constitution and established a mixed presidential-parliamentary system of government similar to France (see Country Study). Since 1990, the country has held six national elections for president and eight general elections for parliament, with regular transfers of power between parties. Local elections are also regular. Poland joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1999 and the European Union (EU) in 2004, bringing it fully within the community of democratic nations and the Transatlantic Alliance.

The most recent parliamentary election, held in October 2015, resulted in the opposition party, Law and Justice (PiS), defeating the Civic Platform (PO), the governing party since 2007. The wide margin of victory (38 to 24 percent) resulted in a slim majority of seats in parliament, the first single party majority since 1990. In a second round presidential election held earlier in the year, PiS candidate Andrzej Duda defeated the incumbent, PO’s Bronislaw Komorowski, by a 51 to 48 percent margin. 

Poland is the 69th-largest country in the world by area (312,685 square kilometers), with a population of 38.4 million (the official government estimate at the beginning of 2015). After the establishment of the first non-communist government in 1989, the government undertook massive economic reforms and privatized the state-owned economy. For 2014, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) ranked Poland the 23rd largest economy in the world in nominal GDP at approximately $550 billion in total output. The per capita Gross National Income (GNI) ranking, however, is much lower, at 54th (at around $12,500 per annum), reflecting the difficulty in overcoming the communist legacy and the unequal effects of Poland’s economic liberalization. While Poland’s growth rate following the world financial crisis of 2008-09 has been among Europe’s highest, poverty rates and unemployment have remained persistently high (joblessness was at around 13 percent in 2014). Poland faces significant economic, budget, and demographic challenges as a result. Due largely to the lack of job opportunities and declining social services, two million young people under 30 emigrated in the ten-year period between 2003 and 2013, mostly to other EU countries and the U.S.


18th century Poland

Statehood, Commonwealth, and Partition

Poland's statehood dates back to 966 AD from Mieszko I's conversion to Chrisitanity 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, which made it a place of refuge 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. The Commonwealth’s adoption of the Henrician Articles accorded semi-democratic powers to the Sejm, or parliament, including election of the king on the principle of non-hereditary succession — rare in Europe at the time — as well as the right to approve any levy of taxes. In 1573, the Sejm passed an act formalizing the guarantee of religious freedom.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth weakened after adoption of the liberum veto, in which any single member of the Sejm could exercise a veto on its actions. The rulers of Prussia, Austria and Russia took advantage of the practice (generally with bribes) to gain influence over the Commonwealth and neighboring territories. Failed alliances and wars aimed at protecting the Commonwealth’s sovereignty ultimately led to a first partition and loss of territories in 1772. The Sejm’s adoption of the May 1 Constitution in 1791, inspired by the American and French Revolutions, established a period of liberal constitutionalism, but it was short-lived. Russia invaded the Commonwealth and in a second and finally a third partition, Russia, Austria, and Prussia placed Poland more fully under foreign subjugation. Over the next 125 years, Poles organized underground universities, political parties, and even several uprisings, especially against Russian domination. Despite these resistance activities, the Poles were unable to rid themselves of foreign control until World War I brought about an end to the ruling structures of all three partitioning powers.

Independence, War, Catastrophe

In the aftermath of World War I and the 1917 Russian Revolution, Poland regained its independence, establishing a Second Republic and repelling the invasion of the Bolshevik Red Army. Poland's politics experienced a rebirth, as conservative, liberal, and socialist parties fought for influence in the Sejm and upper house of parliament, the Senate. Independence leader Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, however, became increasingly authoritarian, using state propaganda and arrests to maintain a dominant political position.

Poland's independence ended in September 1939, when German and Soviet forces occupied the country as part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which established an alliance between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and, under secret protocols, divided Western and Eastern Europe between them. During its occupation, the Soviet Union carried out one of the worst atrocities of the Second World War, a massacre in the Katyn forest of 22,000 Polish officers, politicians, intellectuals, and Catholic Church officials. (The Soviet Union later blamed the massacre on the Nazis, however evidence long ago made clear that the executions were conducted by the Soviet secret police.) Hitler broke the Pact in June 1941, invading the Soviet Union and occupying all other Eastern European countries that the Soviet Union had seized. Polish and Jewish resistance movements could not stem the brutality of these occupations. It is estimated that six million Polish citizens were killed from 1939 to 1945, including three million Polish Jews murdered in the Holocaust, the Nazi regime’s systematic effort to exterminate European Jewry. 

The Communist Period

The Soviet Red Army ultimately repelled Germany’s bloody invasion and in 1944 proceeded to occupy much of Central and Eastern Europe, including Poland. But instead of engaging Nazi forces, the Soviet Union allowed them to destroy Poland’s non-communist resistance and much of what remained of the capital city during the Warsaw Uprising. A Soviet-created Polish Committee of National Liberation (known as the “Lublin Committee”) was then recognized as Poland's new government. The presence of the Red Army ensured that a Western-recognized government-in-exile in London could not supplant the Soviet-backed provisional government and set the stage for decades of communist rule.

Despite its traumatic wartime and postwar experiences, Polish society organized strong resistance to communism in the spirit of its previous national resistance movements.

Against this background, the February 1945 Yalta Agreement, signed by the governments of the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States, effectively ceded Poland and other countries of Eastern Europe to a Soviet sphere of influence. Promises of free elections were broken. Under Soviet occupation, staged elections established communist control as the Eastern European countries were re-constituted as “people’s democracies.” Under Soviet KGB direction, the communist-controlled governments carried out terror campaigns of show trials, executions, and repression that cemented their power over their populations. All liberal influences within society were officially purged. Due to a defiant stand by its Archbishop, Cardinal Stefan Wysziński, Poland’s Catholic Church, alone among religious structures in the Soviet-bloc countries, maintained legal independence and autonomy.

Polish Resistance and the Solidarity Movement

Despite the country’s traumatic wartime and postwar experiences, Polish society organized resistance to communism in the spirit of its previous national independence movements. There were revolts by workers and students in 1956, 1968, 1970, and 1976. A strike in 1980 that began at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk spread throughout the country and led to the signing of the Gdansk Accords in August, whose most important provision allowed workers the right to form free trade unions independent of communist state or party control. Within one month, ten million workers had joined the Independent and Self-Governing Trade Union Solidarity (Solidarność). In December 1981, just sixteen months later, the government of General Wojciech Jaruzelski sought to crush Solidarity and other pro-democracy and opposition groups through the imposition of martial law (under the constitution, the government formally declared “a state of war” against its own people). Tens of thousands of union activists were arrested, strikes and demonstrations were brutally suppressed, and independent publications were banned. But the Solidarity union survived the heavy repression and re-organized itself underground, or clandestinely, against the regime. After seven years as an underground movement, Solidarity renewed nationwide strikes in 1988 to demand relegalization of the union. Under increasing social pressure, General Jaruzelski agreed to negotiations between government and opposition representatives. A so-called Roundtable Agreement was reached in April 1989 setting Poland on the course toward democratization.

Lech Walesa


Since 1948, elections in the People’s Republic of Poland had simply been a routine in which citizens were forced to cast ballots for the Communist party and its satellites. During the Roundtable negotiations, the Communist government agreed to relegalize Solidarity and also hold quasi-democratic elections that opened up one-third of the Sejm's seats to competition as well as all 100 seats in a new, but generally powerless, upper chamber, the Senate. Two-thirds of the Sejm was reserved for the communists and their satellite parties. Although Solidarity was not allowed to put forward candidates as a party, its candidates ran for the open seats under the name “Citizen Committees of Lech Walesa” and Solidarity was allowed to publish a newspaper to report on the campaign. The campaign took place in an atmosphere of relative freedom. The main issue was convincing Solidarity members that the Roundtable was not a "sellout" and that their vote was not a validation of Communist rule but rather an opportunity to change the system incrementally.

In the end, citizens saw an opportunity to register a massive vote not only for Solidarity but also against the Communist regime. By large margins, Citizens’ Committee candidates won all contested seats but one, a Senate seat won by a sympathetic independent. Meanwhile, many Communist-reserved seats failed to receive the necessary quorum of 50 percent of votes cast, meaning that the government needed Solidarity's approval to hold an unprecedented second round without a requirement for a majority vote. Most Solidarity leaders believed themselves to be bound by the Roundtable Agreement and accepted the holding of a second round to allow the Communists to fill their designated seats as well as a behind-the-scenes agreement to have parliament elect General Jaruzelski as president with power to control the military and security forces. In the end, the enormity of the Communists' electoral defeat led to the desertion of its satellite parties and the collapse of the regime. In September 1989, the Solidarity faction in parliament formed the first non-Communist government in the post-war Soviet bloc, helping to set in motion the fall of Communist regimes throughout the region.

Presidential and Parliamentary Elections

The period after 1989, although known as the Third Republic, was at first still governed under the constitution of the Polish People’s Republic. It was substantially amended in 1992 (the so-called “Small Constitution”) to formalize the mixed parliamentary-presidential system and free-market reforms put in place following the Roundtable Agreements. A fully new constitution was adopted by public referendum in May 1997 laying more solid foundations for the Third Republic. It confirmed the mixed presidential-parliamentary system and electoral system in place. 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 party or coalition in the Sejm (the lower house of parliament). A Constitutional Court, whose members are appointed by the president and approved by the Sejm, determines the constitutionality of laws. Elections for the Sejm are conducted by a proportional system using the standard d'Hondt method (which favors larger parties and coalitions) for allocating seats. The Senate, the second house of parliament, has limited powers and is selected by district constituencies in one round of voting, with the highest vote-getter winning the seat.

Since 1990, there have been six presidential elections and seven parliamentary elections, with several trasnfers of power between parties and coalitions. . .  . All have been generally free and fair.

Since 1990, there have been six presidential elections and seven parliamentary elections, with several transfers of power between parties and coalitions. Local elections are also regular. All have been generally free and fair.

In 1990, Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa was elected the first non-Communist president since before World War II. In 1995, however, Alexander Kwasniewski, the leader of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), a party comprised largely of former Communist party members, defeated Wałęsa. Adopting a pro-Western and European platform, Kwasniewski presided over Poland’s effort to gain membership in NATO in 1999. After Kwasniewski’s re-election in 2000, Poland joined the European Union in 2004.

In 2005, Lech Kaczynski, a Solidarity activist and former advisor to Lech Walesa, ran and won the presidency as leader of the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party. Near the end of his term, on April 10, 2010, Kaczynski, along with 95 leading Polish government officials who were traveling to attend a ceremony honoring the victims of the Katyn massacre, died in a tragic airplane accident due to bad weather conditions near Smolensk, Russia. The joint Polish-Russian ceremony had been scheduled following a formal admission by the Russian government of the Soviet Union’s complicity in the massacre (see History section above). But Polish-Russian relations deteriorated as the official Russian investigation into the crash put sole blame for the accident on the pilots and Polish passengers and dismissed any possibility of other causes — raising many questions about the circumstances of the crash. Under the constitution, Boris Komorowski, the speaker of parliament from a rival party, the Civic Platform, assumed the presidency until new elections could be held three months later. In June 2010, he defeated the PiS candidate, Lech’s twin brother and political partner Jaroslaw Kaczynski. In 2015, PiS’s candidate, Andrzej Duda, retook the presidency in a second round run-off with Komorowski.

The first fully free parliamentary elections took place in 1991, a full two years after the transition from communism. Starting in 1991, each of the four successive parliamentary elections resulted in the alternation of governments between Solidarity-led coalitions (1991–93 and 1997–2000) and coalitions led by the post-Communist SLD (1993–97 and 2001–05).

The September 2005 parliamentary elections resulted in the sound defeat of the SLD, perceived to be protecting the privileges of the former communist elite at a time of high unemployment and large economic disparities. Two new competing right-oriented, post-Solidarity parties — Law and Justice (PiS), whose platform mixed social conservativism and statist economic policies, and Civic Platform, a classic economically liberal and pro-European Union party — won a majority of the seats in parliament. Although Civic Platform won slightly more seats, PiS at first formed a minority government and then put together a coalition government with two extreme right-wing and anti-EU parties. Lacked stability, the coalition lost a no confidence vote two years into its term. New elections held in 2007 gave Civic Platform a decisive victory, with 41.5 percent of the vote, and a sufficient number of seats to form a stable coalition. In the 2011 elections, Civic Platform again won a plurality, reduced to 38 percent, making it the first political party since the 1989 transition from communism to win successive elections. In 2015, PiS defeated Civic Platform, gaining a majority of seats in parliament.

Current Issues

The presidential and parliamentary elections of 2015 brought to the fore a number of political, economic, and social challenges facing the country. The Civic Platform government had adopted increasingly ideological free market platform. Although the government earned praise from the EU and international institutions for presiding over high growth rates, these masked a number of domestic problems. In 2013, the PO government introduced new austerity measures and ordered the state to take over private pension programs to offset ballooning budget deficits. It also took the highly unpopular step of increasing the retirement age from 60 for women and 65 for men to a mandatory 67 for both men and women. In part, this action was taken to compensate for another problem, namely the workforce drain of two million young people under 30 who had emigrated over the previous decade. In polls, most of these younger workers state their intention not to return to Poland due to lack of job opportunities, declining education and health care services, and poverty high levels. The Solidarity trade union, although weakened in membership, organized a week-long anti-austerity demonstration. It also led a petition campaign that garnered 500,000 signatures demanding a referendum on the retirement age increase, but the parliament ignored the constitutional provision triggering a referendum.

The governing party’s popularity was further challenged by “Waitergate.”  Wprost, an independent newspaper, published transcripts of recordings at an expensive restaurant frequented at public expense by high government officials. In addition to using extremely crude language in referring to the voting public, officials were recorded as they arranging changes in top government posts and manipulation of bank policies in order to benefit backers of the Civic Platform. The public was further outraged by a police raid on Wprost attempting to seize the recordings. Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who had served 7 years in the post, denied knowledge of any behind-the-scenes arrangements for the changes made in government appointments and Central Bank policies. He survived two votes of confidence but subsequently resigned to take a previously arranged post as President of the European Council (the EU’s policy-setting body made up of government heads of state). The new prime minister, Ewa Kopacz, could not reverse the decline in confidence in the government, which appeared to be continuing the practice of protecting the privileges of a post-communist elite.

Civic Platform (PO) was clearly rejected by voters in the 2015 presidential and parliamentary elections. In May, a political newcomer, Andrzej Duda, the candidate of Law and Justice (PiS), defeated the incumbent president, Bronislaw Komorowski, getting 52 percent of the vote in a second-round run-off. In parliamentary elections in October, running on a platform promising a return to traditional values and an end to austerity policies, PiS won 38 percent of the vote and a slim majority of parliament seats, the first such single-party majority in the post-1989 period.  PO dropped to 24 percent of the vote and 138 seats, a loss of 59 seats. No left-wing party won seats to the parliament. (The United Left, led by the SLD, failed to reach the 8 percent threshold for a coalition.) A new extreme right party got 9 percent and 42 seats.

While PiS won both the presidential and parliamentary elections, the party had won in an unusual fashion. PiS’s longstanding leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, acknowledging his own high disapproval ratings, declined to run for president or put himself forward as a candidate for prime minister. At the same time, he has insisted on maintaining his dominant party position through which he is determining the make-up of the government and the setting of government policies. This exertion of behind-the-scenes power as well as Kaczynski’s controversial political positions (among others he has renewed suspicions of Russian government complicity in the 2010 plane crash that killed his brother) has undermined the democratic legitimacy of Poland’s highest elected leaders, the president and the prime minister.

In this setting, President Duda faced an early test to his constitutional power over a decision to deny five appointments to the Constitutional Court made by the PO-controlled parliament just before its term was up — and slightly before any scheduled changes were due. He refused to swear in the PO-appointed justices and instead swore in appointments approved by the new PiS-controlled parliament. Each side was charged with an attempt to “stack” the court. The president and PiS-led government have faced public protests over this controversy and also the government’s decision to change the leadership of the state-owned television channel and to propose legislation to change the governing structure so as to limit its independence. While previous governments also acted to influence the state-owned television, the PiS initiatives have extended such influence and are being criticized for infringing media freedom.

Sensitive to charges that the EU had ignored anti-democratic trends in other new member countries (especially Hungary), the president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, took  the unusual step of announcing a review of Poland’s Constitutional Court crisis and media law changes to determine if EU rules have been violated. Donald Tusk, now president of the European Council, the separate policy-setting body of the EU, took an equally unusual position of criticizing European Commission leaders for triggering its review process, stating that the crisis was an internal constitutional matter within a democratic country. The European Commission, however, formally criticized the Polish government in a statement in April, while the related Venice Commission, which reviews constitutional changes and issues of Council of Europe members, issued a critical review of proposed changes in the laws governing the scope and structure of Poland’s Constitutional Court.

Now more than 25 years after the fall of Soviet-imposed communist rule, Poland continues to deal with a number of political, economic, and social challenges and its political direction is under scrutiny by European and other institutions. Nevertheless, the country emerged from the communist period as an electoral democracy with constitutional checks and balances on power, a system of rule of law, and basic respect for human rights. Poland holds regular, free and fair elections and there are vigorous and serious policy debates over public issues. Formerly a member of the Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact, Poland today has rejoined Europe and the West as a leading member of the EU and NATO. Freedom House’s Survey of Freedom in the World regularly ranks Poland as “free” with high marks for political rights and civil liberties.