Freedom in the World
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In 2001, Polish voters ousted the government of Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek and handed a parliamentary election victory to a coalition of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) and the Labor Union (UP). However, having failed to receive an outright majority, the SLDUP alliance formed a government with the Polish Peasants Party (PSL). A series of corruption scandals and continued efforts to fulfill European Union membership requirements also marked the year. In addition, in recognition of the twentieth anniversary of martial law, President Aleksander Kwasniewski made a speech in which he called martial law "evil because it was directed against the rebirth of freedom." Former Communist leader General Wojciech Jaruzelski also went on trial for his role in the 1970 shootings of shipyard workers who were protesting in Gdansk and other port cities.
From the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries, Poland and Lithuania maintained a powerful empire that Prussia, Austria, and Russia destroyed in three successive partitions. Poland enjoyed a window of independence from 1918 to 1939 but was forced into the Communist sphere at the end of World War II. Polish citizens endured a Soviet- style people's republic from 1952 to 1989, the year Lech Walesa and the Solidarity trade union movement forced the government to accept democratic reforms.
Voters elected Walesa president in 1990, and he presided over five years of economic and political transformation. Former Communist Aleksander Kwasniewski defeated Walesa in 1995 and remains in power today. Kwasniewski's SLD controlled the government from 1993 to 1997, when the opposition Solidarity Election Action (AWS) proved victorious in parliamentary elections. The smaller Freedom Union (UW) party joined the AWS in forming a majority government led by Buzek.
In 2000, Poland celebrated the twentieth anniversary of Solidarity. The same year, the UW withdrew its support from the Solidarity-led government, which it blamed for failing to rally support for important budget cuts and privatization programs. Five cabinet members resigned, and Buzek was left presiding over an unpopular minority government. Voters delivered a solid reelection victory in October 2000 to President Kwasniewski, who pledged to make membership in the European Union (EU) his top priority.
In September 2001, voters handed the Buzek government a crushing defeat in parliamentary elections. Approximately 7,800 candidates, representing 15 parties and coalitions, vied for 460 seats in the Sejm, parliament's lower house. About 430 candidates competed for 100 seats in the senate.
In the Sejm election, a coalition of the SLD and the UP proved victorious with 41.04 percent of the vote and 216 seats but failed to win an outright majority. The two parties formed a government with the PSL, which had won 42 seats. Civic Platform (PO), a new centrist party, finished second in the election with 12.68 percent of the vote and 65 seats. The following parties divided the remaining seats: Self-Defense Party (Samooborona), 53 seats; Law and Justice (PIS), 44; League of Polish Families (LPR), 38; and the German minority, 2. The AWS and the UW failed to secure a single seat.
In the senate election, the SLD-UP won 75 seats; the Blok Senate 2001, 15; the PSL, 4; the LPR, 2; and Samooborona, 2. Candidates Henryk Stoklosa and Anna Kurska each received a mandate. Voter turnout was 46 percent. Some observers suggested that a series of corruption scandals involving high-level officials sealed the Buzek government's fate. In one high-profile case, for example, the prime minister fired Deputy Defense Minister Bronislaw Komorowski after police arrested an aide who had solicited bribes from defense firms on Komorowski's behalf.
During the election campaign, the leaders of the AWS, the UW, the PO, and the SLD signed a pledge in support of Polish membership in the EU. The SLD-UP platform also pledged support for EU membership but called for a national referendum on the issue. According to the OBOP polling agency, public support for joining the EU dropped from 61.6 percent in 2000 to 49.6 percent in 2001.
In its 2001 report on Polish accession, the European Commission (EC) noted a number of positive developments. Among these were measures aimed at improving transparency in party financing and ensuring that the method of allocating seats in parliament was a better reflection of voter preferences. The EC also noted continued improvements in judicial performance and the adoption of a law on public information, which it called "an important ... development in the fight against corruption." According to a September 2001 survey conducted by the OBOP polling agency, 49.6 percent of Poles favor EU membership; 30.4 percent do not.
Polish citizens who are age 18 or older can change their government democratically under a system of universal and equal suffrage by secret ballot. Voters elect the president and members of parliament. The president's appointment of the prime minister is subject to confirmation by the Sejm.
Elections in Poland are free and fair. The 1997 parliamentary election resulted in a change of government when the opposition AWS defeated the SLD. The AWS and the UW formed a coalition government led by Jerzy Buzek. In May 2000, in anticipation of the October election, parliament amended the Presidential Elections Act to comply with the 1997 constitution. In September 2001, a coalition of the SLD and the UP achieved a solid victory in parliamentary elections. However, having failed to receive 50 percent of the vote, the two parties formed a government with the PSL. SLD leader Leszek Miller became Poland's new prime minister.
Incumbent President Aleksander Kwasniewski began his reelection campaign in 2000 with a strong lead in the polls. He easily defeated eleven opponents in the first round of voting with 53.9 percent of the vote. His closest challenger, independent candidate Andrzej Olechowski, received only 17.3 percent. The remaining candidates performed as follows: Marian Krzaklewski, AWS, 15.57 percent; Jaroslaw Kalinowski, PSL, 5.95 percent; Andrzej Lepper, Self-Defense Party (Samooborona), 3.05 percent. Seven candidates, including Lech Walesa, received fewer than 2 percent each. After his poor showing, Walesa retired from active political life.
The 1997 constitution guarantees freedom of expression and forbids censorship. However, the country's libel law treats slander as a criminal offense. Journalists, in particular, oppose the growing number of related lawsuits. In 2001, a court found Andrzej Lepper, the head of Samooborona, guilty of slandering President Kwasniewski and two former government ministers back in 1999. Parliament later fired Lepper from his post as deputy speaker for insulting other senior officials. Poland enjoys a diverse, and growing, supply of print and electronic media. In 2001, the ITI media group launched TVN 24, the country's first 24-hour television news channel.
The state respects freedom of religion and does not require religious groups to register. All religious groups enjoy a reduced tax burden. Public schools offer classes in religion and ethics. More than 90 percent of Poles are Roman Catholic, and more than 60 percent worship regularly. In 2001, the Institute of National Remembrance ordered the exhumation of a mass grave in Jedwabne, where 1,600 Jews lost their lives in 1941. After a book published in 2000 claimed that Poles, and not the Nazis, were responsible for the murders, the Institute called for the exhumation to search for evidence.
During the 2001 parliamentary election campaign, the Catholic Church urged Poles not to support parties that might try to weaken the country's abortion law, which sets strict limits on the procedure's use. Although the Church did not name a specific party, its comments were directed at the SLD. Also in 2001, the Interior Ministry created an internal department to monitor "new religious groups" and "cults."
Polish citizens can petition the government, assemble freely, organize professional and other associations, and engage in collective bargaining. Public demonstrations require permits from local authorities. In 2001, more than 2,500 steelworkers rallied in Katowice to protest the possible closure of the Huta Baildon steelworks. Twelve workers began a hunger strike. Similarly, workers in Gdansk protested the announcement of 500 layoffs at the city's historic shipyard.
Poland has an independent judiciary, but courts are notorious for delays in processing cases. A January 2000 law sought to relieve the burden by simplifying procedures and increasing the number of court chambers for civil and criminal cases. Other recent reforms include strengthening the public prosecutor's office, adding more judges, and improving judicial training. In its 2001 accession report, the European Commission praised Poland for remaining vigilant in its efforts to improve judicial efficiency but noted that "[a]t this early stage in their implementation such measures have helped to stem the tide but have not yet managed to reverse its flow." The report also noted that "lack of transparency" and "concerns about corruption" in the judicial system persist.
The constitution outlines a range of other personal rights and freedoms, including the right to privacy, the inviolability of the home, freedom of movement, and choice of residence. The constitution also specifies entitlements such as free education and health care.
At nearly 17 percent, unemployment in Poland is a serious problem. Likewise, economic growth has slowed significantly since the middle of 2000, and consumer confidence has reached a four-year low. Even so, the country boasts a competitive market economy in which the private sector makes up 70 percent of gross domestic product and 72 percent of total employment. In 2001, new legislation reduced the number of business activities for which licenses are required. To date, Poland has not promulgated a law on the restitution of private property that was seized during the Communist period.