Poland | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
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At a summit in Copenhagen in December 2002, European leaders issued a formal invitation to Poland to join the EU. This historic milestone provided recognition of the fundamental political and economic gains Poland has made during its post-Communist transition. However, concerns were raised about popular support for joining the EU when populist and far-right parties that oppose membership garnered significant support in local elections. Several events in 2002 also raised questions about the commitment of Prime Minister Leszek Miller's government to the principle of noninterference in the functioning of a free press. The ninth visit by the ailing Pope John Paul II to his Polish homeland since becoming the pontiff was feared to be his last.

From the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries, Poland and Lithuania maintained a powerful state 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. A former Communist, Aleksander Kwasniewski, defeated Walesa in 1995 and remains in office today. Kwasniewski's Democratic Left Alliance (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 Jerzy Buzek as prime minister.

In 2000, voters delivered a solid reelection victory to President Kwasniewski, who pledged to make membership in the EU his top priority. The next year, Polish voters ousted Buzek's government and handed a parliamentary election victory to a coalition of the SLD and the Labor Union (UP). However, having failed to receive an outright majority, the SLD-UP alliance formed a government with the Polish Peasants Party (PSL). Some observers suggested that a series of corruption scandals involving high-level officials sealed the Buzek government's fate.

In December 2002, the European Commission extended a formal invitation to Poland and nine other nations to join the EU in 2004. During an address to the nation, Prime Minister Leszek Miller declared, "Europe has said yes to us; let us now say yes to Europe." He then called for a national referendum on membership for May 2003.

Although public opinion polls consistently show that a majority of Poles support EU membership, the electoral gains for parties that oppose membership has raised concern both at home and abroad. Local elections in 2002, for example, took on greater significance when the populist Samoobrona (Self-Defense) party and the far-right League of Polish Families together captured 33 percent of the vote. Both groups oppose EU membership. In particular, Andrzej Lepper, the farmer-turned-politician who leads Samoobrona and fears that membership will weaken severely the country's vast agricultural sector, has been likened in style by the Polish press to interwar fascist leaders and been accused of promoting an "anarchist ethos" in the country.

In 2002, Prime Minister Miller stirred concern about his government's commitment to the free press in what the U.S.-based World Press Freedom Committee described as "official attempts to undermine the essential financial independence of Poland's leading free newspapers." First, prosecutors reopened a tax dispute with Presspublica Holding, the Norwegian parent company of the newspaper Rzeczpospolita, and brought criminal charges against three of its managers. When the prosecutor's office seized the executives' passports and ordered them to check in regularly with the police, journalists and press freedom advocates denounced the move as injurious to the country's independent media and suggested that the government, which owns a 49 percent stake in Rzeczpospolita, was considering a takeover of the company for political gain.

Second, the government submitted a new Broadcast Law to parliament in 2002 that aimed to prohibit private media companies from owning both television and newspaper properties that have a national reach. The draft law appeared to be directed at the daily Gazeta Wyborcza and its parent company, Agora, which wanted to invest in a private television network. The bill drew ire when reports began to circulate that government ministers and spokespersons had stated publicly that they wanted to punish Agora and Gazeta Wyborcza for critical reporting on the government. Although the government softened the law in response to critics, the issue remained unresolved at year's end, when Marek Borowski, the speaker of parliament's lower house, established a special committee to review the law's validity.

At age 82, Pope John Paul II visited his home country in 2002 for the ninth time as pontiff. With nearly three million people estimated in attendance at a Mass near Cracow, the event is believed to have been the largest public gathering ever in Poland. The pope was quoted as saying "unfortunately, this is a farewell meeting," and that it was "entirely in God's hands" whether he would ever return. The pope, who was instrumental in ending communism in Europe, also lamented "the noisy propaganda of liberalism" in Poland and warned of the consequences of "freedom without responsibility."

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

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 generally free and fair. Women account for 20 percent of Sejm members and 23 percent of Senate members.

In September 2001, voters handed the government of Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek a crushing defeat in parliamentary elections. SLD leader Leszek Miller became Poland's new prime minister. In the Sejm election, a coalition of the center-left SLD and the UP took 41.04 percent of the vote and 216 seats but failed to win an outright majority.

The two parties formed a government with the leftist 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: the far-right Samooborona party, 53 seats; the center-right Law and Justice (PIS), 44; the right-wing 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 bloc Senate 2001, 15; the PSL, 4; the LPR, 2; and Samooborona, 2. Voter turnout was 46 percent.

Incumbent President Aleksander Kwasniewski began his reelection campaign in 2000 with a strong lead in the polls. He easily defeated 11 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; and Andrzej Lepper (Samooborona), 3.05 percent. Seven candidates, including Lech Walesa, received less 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 2002, several actions by the Miller government raised concerns about its respect for media independence.

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. Ninety-five percent of Poles identify themselves as Roman Catholic. According to polling data released in 2002 by the Warsawbased Public Opinion Research Center, 56 percent of respondents believe the Catholic Church is too involved in Polish politics; 32 percent believe the Church's involvement is "as it should be." In 2002, Radio Maryja, an ultraconservative radio network that enjoys 6 million listeners per week, came under allegations of tax fraud. The League of Polish Families, which has ties to Radio Maryja, claimed the investigation was politically motivated in response to the party's skepticism of EU membership.

The Institute of National Remembrance confirmed in 2002 that around 1,500 priests had spied for the secret service during the Communist period. In particular, a priest (now deceased) spied on Karol Wojtyla (now Pope John Paul II) when he was the bishop of Cracow. In 2002, the institute also published a report, Around Jedwabne, that estimates that Poles participated in the murder of as many as 1,000 Jews at Jedwabne in the 1940s. It had long held that the Nazis were responsible for the killings.

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. 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. Although Solidarity's political strength has waned in recent years, labor groups remain active and influential. In April 2002, for example, Solidarity organized a rally in Warsaw by more than 25,000 workers to protest proposed changes to the country's labor laws. The protesters feared that mass layoffs could result from several liberalizing measures.

Poland has an independent judiciary, but courts are notorious for delays in processing cases. In 2000, the country began a reform process that has sought to increase the independence, efficiency, and professionalism of the judiciary. In its 2002 accession report, the European Commission acknowledged "steady progress" and "improved efficiency" in this process but noted that Poland should continue efforts to increase public access to justice, address public perceptions of corruption within the judiciary, and improve the treatment of detainees by the police. The commission's report also noted that prison conditions continue to deteriorate and that corruption "threatens to undermine the functioning of many public spheres."

The constitution outlines a range of 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. The rights of minorities in the country are generally protected. In 2002, organizations representing minority interests in the country expressed concern over a question in the census pertaining to ethnicity. Although the interior minister assured minority groups that the question was intended to assist the government in formulating policies designed to protect minorities, groups suggested that individuals feared reporting any ethnicity other than Polish and, as a result, that the census data could prove inaccurate.

In 2002, President Kwasniewski expressed concern that sustained high unemployment (nearly 20 percent) and poverty could pose a threat to Polish democracy. Nevertheless, the country still boasts a competitive market economy in which the private sector makes up 75 percent of gross domestic product and 72 percent of total employment, according to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. In 2002, President Kwasniewski promised that in early 2003 he would submit legislation to the Polish parliament on the restitution of private property seized during the Communist period.