Poland | Freedom House

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President Lech Kaczynski ratified the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty in October 2009 after an opt-out clause concerning the Charter of Fundamental Rights was added. While Poland was the only country in the bloc to experience economic growth in 2009, its progress toward adoption of the euro currency stalled during the year.

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 between 1989 and 1991, and additional changes came as Poland prepared its bid for membership in the European Union (EU). In the 1990s, power alternated between political parties with a background in Solidarity and those with communist origins. Former communist Alexander Kwasniewski of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) replaced Solidarity’s Lech Walesa as president in 1995 and was subsequently reelected by a large margin in 2000. A government led by the SLD oversaw Poland’s final reforms ahead of EU accession, which took place in May 2004.
Law and Justice (PiS), a conservative party headed by identical twin brothers Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, won the September 2005 parliamentary elections. Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, rather than Jaroslaw Kaczynski, was named prime minister–designate to avoid damaging Lech Kaczynski’s presidential bid by raising the prospect of the two brothers controlling both presidency and premiership. Lech Kaczynski 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). In July 2006, Jaroslaw Kaczynski replaced Marcinkiewicz as prime minister. The ruling coalition broke apart in September, only to reform in a weakened state the following month. When it collapsed again a year later, following the prime minister’s firing of a number of senior officials, legislative elections were called for October 2007.
The center-right Civic Platform (PO) party 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. A representative of the German minority held the remaining seat. In the Senate, the PO took 60 seats, the PiS won 39, and the last seat went to an independent. The PO and PSL formed a coalition government in November, with PO leader Donald Tusk as prime minister.
The relationship between Tusk and Lech Kaczynski remained tense in 2008, as the president resisted the government’s generally pro-EU policy initiatives. Kaczynski ratified the EU’s Lisbon Treaty in October 2009, but only with an opt-out clause regarding the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which the PiS felt would infringe on Polish sovereignty and potentially allow more legal abortions, same-sex marriage, and euthanasia. While Tusk’s government had laid out plans in 2008 for Poland to adopt the euro currency by 2012, it abandoned this target date in July 2009 due to the global financial crisis. In May the country secured a $20 billion credit line from the International Monetary Fund to help it endure the crisis, and it was the only country in the EU to achieve economic growth in 2009.
In the June 2009 elections for the European Parliament, the PO led with 25 seats, followed by the PiS with 15, an SLD-led coalition with seven, and the PSL with three. Former center-right prime minister Jerzy Buzek was elected president of the European Parliament, making him the first Eastern European to hold such a high-ranking position in the EU.
In September, U.S. president Barack Obama canceled his predecessor’s plans to build an antiballistic missile installation in Poland. However, the United States was expected to proceed with the related deployment of short- to medium-range air defense missiles, and an agreement was reached in December to station a U.S. Patriot anti-missile battery in Poland.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Poland is an electoral democracy. Voters elect the president for up to two 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. The SLD formed the LiD coalition with a number of smaller left-leaning parties in 2006, but the grouping ultimately dissolved in 2008. PiS’s former governing coalition partners, Self-Defense and the LPR, failed to win representation in the 2007 legislative elections. There is one representative of the German minority in the Sejm.
Corruption remains a problem and often goes unpunished. Several high-ranking government officials, including the deputy prime minister, resigned in October 2009 for their alleged involvement in a gambling-industry lobbying scandal. Also that month, the head of the Central Anticorruption Bureau (CBA) was charged with abuse of power for encouraging his agents to engage in bribery and forgery. Such scandals adversely affect Poland’s ability to attract foreign investment. Poland was ranked 49 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The 1997 constitution guarantees freedom of expression and forbids censorship. Libel is a criminal offense, though a November 2009 amendment to the criminal code eased criminal penalties for defamation. Infringements on media freedom include gag orders and arbitrary judicial decisions concerning media investigations of individuals affiliated with parties in power. Poland’s print media are diverse and for the most part privately owned. The state-owned Polish Television (TVP) and Polish Radio are dominant in their media, but they face growing competition from private Polish and foreign outlets. Control over TVP has caused various political disputes in recent years, as several bills on the station’s funding have been passed by parliament and then vetoed by the president. In November, the president signed hate-speech legislation that made the possession, production, sale, or distribution of communist or fascist symbols punishable by up to two years in prison. The government does not restrict internet access.
The state respects freedom of religion. Religious groups are not required to register with the authorities but receive tax benefits if they do. Academic freedom is generally respected.
Polish citizens can petition the government, assemble legally, organize professional and other associations, and engage in collective bargaining. However, complicated legal procedures and slow courts hinder workers’ ability to strike. Public demonstrations require permits from local authorities. Poland has a robust labor movement, but groups including the self-employed and those working under individual contracts are barred from joining a union. 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. Prison conditions are fairly poor by European standards, and pretrial detention periods can be lengthy. A new human rights division was opened by the justice ministry in November 2009 to properly address human rights abuses and support victims.
Ethnic minorities generally enjoy generous protections and rights under Polish law, including funding for bilingual education and publications, and privileged representation in the parliament; their political parties are not subject to the minimum vote threshold of 5 percent to achieve representation. Some groups, particularly the Roma, suffer discrimination in employment and housing, racially motivated insults, and, less frequently, physical attacks. Poland’s homosexual community is active, but also faces discrimination.
Women have made inroads in the professional sphere and are employed in a wide variety of occupations; several hold high positions in government and the private sector. Female lawmakers hold 20 percent of the Sejm seats and 8 percent of the Senate. However, domestic violence against women is a serious concern. Trafficking in women and girls for the purpose of prostitution also remains a problem. Following an incest and pedophilia case in 2008, a bill stipulating that pedophiles convicted of certain crimes (such as incest) must be chemically castrated upon their release was signed by the president in November 2009, drawing significant criticism from human rights groups.