Poland | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2008

2008 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Trend Arrow: 

Poland received an upward trend arrow due to improvements in freedom of expression and association following the October electoral victory of the Civic Platform party and leader Donald Tusk’s appointment as prime minister.

Political turmoil surrounding the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party continued in 2007 until the parliament voted to dissolve, prompting elections in October. The center-right opposition party Civic Platform won the polls, and its leader, Donald Tusk, became the new prime minster. Tusk is considered more modern and EU-oriented, and was widely welcomed by the media. A loosening of restrictions was immediately apparent, including an undisturbed gay rights demonstration and a more relaxed press atmosphere.

After being destroyed by its powerful neighbors in a series of 18th-century partitions, Poland enjoyed a window of independence from 1918 to 1939, only to be invaded by Germany and the Soviet Union at the opening of World War II. The country then endured decades as a Soviet satellite state until 1989, when the Solidarity trade union movement forced the government to accept democratic elections.

Fundamental democratic and free-market reforms were introduced during the 1989–91 period. Later changes came as Poland prepared its bid for membership in the European Union (EU). Political parties with a background in Solidarity held power from 1989 to 1993 and from 1997 to 2001. In 1995, former communist Alexander Kwasniewski replaced Solidarity’s Lech Walesa as president and was subsequently reelected by a large margin in 2000.

In September 2001, voters handed the Solidarity government of Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek a decisive defeat in parliamentary elections, and Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) leader Leszek Miller became the new prime minister. The Solidarity movement 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 mostly former communist Central and Eastern Europe countries. Poland has since been a somewhat awkward EU member, fighting aggressively over its share of the EU’s budget and voting privileges.

Law and Justice (PiS), a conservative party with strong anticommunist roots headed by identical twin brothers Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, won a stunning victory in the September 2005 elections. Although Jaroslaw was the formal party leader, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz was named prime minister–designate to avoid damaging Lech Kaczynski’s presidential bid. He duly won the presidential contest in October, and PiS eventually formed a fragile majority coalition with the leftist-populist, agrarian Self-Defense Party (Samoobrona) and the socially conservative, Catholic-oriented League of Polish Families (LPR). Marcinkiewicz gained popularity for running a capable, modest government, but in July 2006 he was replaced by Jaroslaw Kaczynski. The ruling coalition broke apart in September 2006, only to reform in a weakened state the following month.

The Kaczynskis pressed ahead with their increasingly unpopular policies in 2007, including “lustration” legislation that took effect in March. The law required as many as 700,000 citizens in positions of authority—such as civil servants, journalists, and academics—to declare in writing whether they had cooperated with the communist-era secret service. Refusal to comply would result in a 10-year ban from public office. However, the Constitutional Tribunal struck down many of the law’s provisions in May. The paranoid political atmosphere was worsened by the initial publication in September by the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) of the names of public figures who had spied for or were spied upon by the former regime.

Political instability continued over the summer as the prime minister fired a number of senior officials, including the deputy prime minister and agriculture minister, Self-Defense Party leader Andrzej Lepper. The dismissals led to the collapse of the governing coalition, and on September 7 the Sejm (lower house of parliament) voted to dissolve itself, triggering national elections on October 21. Some 55 percent of eligible voters turned out for the polls, the highest rate since the fall of communism, and handed victory to the center-right Civic Platform (PO) party. The PO, advocating business-friendly and pro-EU policies, won 209 seats in the Sejm, followed by PiS with 166, the Left and Democrats (LiD) coalition with 53, and the Polish People’s Party (PSL) with 31. The PO and PSL formed a coalition government in November, with PO leader Donald Tusk as prime minister. Given the outgoing PiS government’s acrimonious relations with the EU, most EU leaders applauded Tusk’s election.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Poland is an electoral democracy. Voters elect the president for five-year terms and members of the bicameral National Assembly for four-year terms. The president’s appointment of the prime minister is subject to confirmation by the 460-seat Sejm, the National Assembly’s lower house. The prime minister is responsible for most government policy, but the president also has an important role, especially in foreign relations. The 100-member Senate, the upper house, can delay and amend legislation but has few other powers.

The conservative PiS and the center-right PO have become the two most important political parties, while smaller left-leaning parties, including the SLD, have joined forces in the LiD coalition. PiS’s former coalition partners, Self-Defense and the LPR, failed to win representation in the October 2007 legislative elections.

The PiS government elected in 2005 made anticorruption efforts a priority, and PiS itself has generally been seen as less graft-prone than its predecessors in government. However, that reputation was tainted by accusations that it used job offers to convince other parties’ members to defect to PiS. Those in power have also been criticized for using communist-era intelligence files to discredit political enemies. Poland was ranked 61 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 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. Infringements on media freedom include gag orders and arbitrary judicial decisions concerning investigations of individuals affiliated with parties in power. LPR officials in June 2007 filed a lawsuit against former Spanish lawmaker Pilar Rahola, accusing her of criminal defamation of the Polish nation in an article for the Spanish daily El Pais. Separately, in August, the recently fired interior minister reported that intelligence services had tapped the telephones of journalists who were critical of the government. Tusk’s election, however, resulted in the perception that the media will be freer than under the previous government. Poland’s print media are diverse and for the most part privately owned. The state-owned television and radio broadcaster is dominant but faces growing competition from private Polish and foreign outlets. The government does not restrict internet access.

The state respects freedom of religion. Religious groups are not required to register but receive tax benefits if they do. Roman Catholic priest Tadeusz Rydzyk, a PiS supporter and head of a media group that includes the ultraconservative Radio Maryja, was criticized in 2007 for making anti-Semitic remarks. Radio Maryja, although owned by a private Catholic group, enjoys fee exemptions and public-broadcaster status. 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. A demonstration by gay rights activists took place in November without incident, in contrast to previous years. Poland has a robust labor movement, but groups including the self-employed and those working under individual contracts are barred from joining a union. Union pluralism is recognized with the exception of law enforcement personnel, who mounted a successful informal strike in 2007. Labor leaders have complained of harassment by employers.

Poland has an independent judiciary, but courts are notorious for delays in administering cases. State prosecutors have proceeded slowly on corruption investigations, contributing to concerns that they are subject to considerable political pressure. A November 2007 report by the International Bar Association Human Rights Institute on the status of rule of law in Poland found that several recently passed and proposed legislative amendments introduced by the PiS during the year would threaten the judiciary, the legal profession, and prosecutors. They included fee-capping measures for advocates and legal advisors, requirements for cases to be considered in the order in which they are received, and a provision giving the justice minister the ability to reassign judges to different courts or locations against their will. The new government has promised its own judicial reforms and nothing else was enacted by year’s end. Prison conditions are fairly poor by European standards, and pretrial detention periods can be lengthy.

Ethnic minorities generally enjoy generous protections and rights 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. Some groups, particularly the Roma, suffer discrimination in employment and housing, racially motivated insults, and occasional attacks. Poland’s homosexual community is active, but faces discrimination. A March 2007 proposal by the Ministry of Education would have prohibited the promotion of homosexuality in schools, with those found guilty facing fines or imprisonment. The measure was not enacted.

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. However, domestic violence against women is a problem. 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 purpose of prostitution remains a problem.