Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Poland's civil liberties rating improved from 2 to 1 due to the deepening of EU integration trends, resulting in greater conformity with EU human rights standards.
Poland achieved its long-standing goal of joining the European Union (EU) on May 1, 2004. However, the government declined in popularity over the course of the year. The prime minister, Leszek Miller, announced his resignation in March, but this did not stop his ruling party from suffering a major defeat in the European Parliament elections in June under his caretaker successor.
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 invaded by Germany and the Soviet Union during World War II and was forced into the Communist sphere at the end of the war. Polish citizens endured decades of Soviet rule until 1989, the year Lech Walesa and the Solidarity trade union movement 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 EU requirements. Political parties with a background in the Solidarity movement stayed in power from 1989 to 1993 (several coalitions) and from 1997 to 2001 (Solidarity Election Action, or AWS). In 1995, former Communist Alexander Kwasniewski replaced the previous president, Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, 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. Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) leader Leszek Miller became the new prime minister. In the election to the Sejm (lower house of parliament), a coalition of the center-left SLD and the Labor Union (UP) took 41.04 percent of the vote and 216 seats, but failed to win a majority. The two parties formed a government with the leftist Polish Peasants' Party (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 leftist-popular agrarian Self-Defense Party (Samoobrona), 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 Solidarity movement, now a looser coalition known as the "Coalition Electoral Action Solidarity of the Right", and the Freedom Union (UW) failed to secure a single seat.
In a June 2003 referendum, Polish voters overwhelmingly approved joining the EU, with 77 percent voting in favor. On May 1, 2004, Poland formally joined, along with nine other (mostly post-Communist) countries. In subsequent negotiations over a new draft constitution for the EU, Poland fought unsuccessfully for the disproportionate voting clout it was given in the Treaty of Nice (which remains in effect until the constitution is ratified). Poland also tried and failed to include a reference to God or Europe's Christian heritage in the draft. With these disappointments, Poland is one of several countries which may fail to ratify the constitution, which would prevent it from coming into effect.
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, Social Democratic Party of Poland. Miller was replaced by the SLD's Marek Belka, who is expected to be a caretaker prime minister until elections can be held in 2005.
The SLD's weakness was confirmed by a drubbing in Poland's first European Parliament elections, in June. Just 20.4 percent of voters turned out, and the SLD took just 5 of 54 seats. The PO captured 15 seats; the LPR, 10 seats; the PiS, 7 seats; and Samoobrona, 6 seats. The LPR and Samoobrona are both highly skeptical of EU integration; if they do well in the 2005 Polish election, they will be in a strong position to pressure Poland's government and voters to reject the EU constitution.
Over the past several years, Poland has sought to carve out a twenty-first century leadership position for itself in Europe. This is most clearly symbolized by the prominent Polish role in the stabilization of Iraq following the ouster of Saddam Hussein's regime by U.S.-led forces. In charge of one of the four postwar stabilization zones in Iraq, Polish officers command 8,000 troops from some 20 countries, including 2,500 Polish troops. Poland's role in Iraq has generated consternation in a number of capitals in Western Europe that had opposed any military action in Iraq. In October, Prime Minister Belka announced that Poland would begin gradually withdrawing its troops after Iraqi elections, scheduled for January 2005.
Polish citizens can change their government democratically. Voters elect the president and members of parliament. The president's appointment of the prime minister is subject to
confirmation by the Sejm (the lower house of parliament, whose 460 members serve a four-year term). The 100-member Senate can delay legislation but has few other powers. The next parliamentary election must be held by September 2005 at the latest; presidential elections are scheduled for October 2005. The political party system is fragmented. Until recently, the largest and most coherent groups were the AWS and SLD, but the former has disappeared from parliament and the latter has split into rival factions. In addition, there are several small but vocal right-wing parties, including PiS, Samoobrona, the PSL and the LPR.
In 2003, the SLD-led government faced allegations of party figures' links to organized crime and corruption. The "Rywin affair," which involves allegations that film producer Lew Rywin sought a bribe from a major newspaper publisher in return for using his political connections to influence the shape of the draft media law, helped bring down Prime Minister Leszek Miller in 2004. New allegations of corruption surfaced during the year involving an alleged bribe by a Russian oil company to a Polish government minister for the sale of a Polish refinery to the Russian company. Poland was ranked 67 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Poland's membership in the European Union required it to meet the EU's so-called "Copenhagen criteria", including "stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities." In its last report on Poland's progress, issued in 2003, the EU 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.
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."
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. The Church responded with investigations and dismissals, including that of a bishop. Academic freedom is generally respected, though a law on the books 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 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.
Poland has an independent judiciary, but courts are notorious for delays in administering cases. In 1989, the country began a reform process that has sought to increase the 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. 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.
Ethnic minorities generally enjoy generous protections and rights provided under Polish law, including funding for bilingual education and publications and privileged representation in parliament (they are not subject to a minimum threshold requiring 5% of the vote to achieve representation). Poland's once-vibrant Jewish community was reduced to a tiny minority by the Holocaust and subsequent emigration. Poland's other minority groups are small, but some, particularly the 30,000 Roma, suffer societal racism.
Women have made inroads in the professional sphere and are employed in a wide variety of professions and occupations. A number of women hold high positions in government and in the private sector, and the first nominee by Poland to the European Commission was a woman, Danuta Huebner. Domestic violence against women is a problem in Poland. As in several other formerly communist countries, trafficking in women and girls remains a problem.