Freedom in the World
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President Lech Kaczyński and dozens of other Polish dignitaries were killed in an April 2010 plane crash in Russia, but Poland’s robust political institutions ensured the orderly and democratic replacement of all deceased officials. Former prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczyński, leader of the right-wing opposition Law and Justice party, took his late brother’s place in the June presidential election. However, he lost to interim president Bronisław Komorowski of the governing center-right Civic Platform party.
After being dismantled by neighboring empires 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 of exploitation as a Soviet satellite state until the Solidarity trade union movement forced the government to accept democratic elections in 1989.
Fundamental democratic and free-market reforms were introduced between 1989 and 1991, and additional changes came as Poland prepared its bid for European Union (EU) membership. In the 1990s, power shifted between political parties rooted in the Solidarity movement and those with communist origins. Former communist party member Alexander Kwaśniewski of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) replaced Solidarity’s Lech Wałęsa 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.
Promising to eliminate corruption and protect Polish values from erosion under EU pressure, the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, headed by twin brothers Lech and Jarosław Kaczyński, won the September 2005 parliamentary elections. Lech Kaczyński won the presidential contest in October, and Jarosław Kaczyński later became prime minister. PiS 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). The coalition broke up briefly in late 2006, and finally collapsed in 2007 after the prime minister fired a number of senior officials, prompting legislative elections in October.
In the elections, the center-right Civic Platform (PO) party won 209 seats in the lower house (Sejm), followed by PiS with 166, an SLD-led 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, PO took 60 seats, PiS won 39, and the last seat went to an independent. PO and the PSL formed a coalition government in November, with PO leader Donald Tusk as prime minister. The relationship between Tusk and Lech Kaczyński remained tense in 2008 and 2009, as the president resisted the government’s generally pro-EU policy initiatives and its less antagonistic stance toward Russia.
In April 2010, President Kaczyński and a delegation of Poland’s political, academic, and military elite flew to Russia to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Soviet massacre of Polish officers in Katyn Forest. Their plane crashed during a landing attempt in Smolensk, leaving no survivors. The deceased officials were replaced in accordance with the constitution, and Sejm speaker Bronisław Komorowski of the PO served as interim president until elections could be held in June. Jarosław Kaczyński took his brother’s place as the PiS candidate, but lost to Komorowski, who took 53 percent in the second round of voting.
In the aftermath of the plane crash, Polish citizens were strongly divided over the decision to bury Lech Kaczyński at Wawel Cathedral, the final resting place of the country’s most august historical figures. In July, a second wave of discontent erupted after Komorowski announced that a wooden cross erected to commemorate the crash victims would be moved from the presidential palace grounds to nearby St. Anne’s Church. Komorowski’s decision—based on the belief that the religious symbol was inappropriate for display on public grounds—led to PiS-backed vigils by self-described “defenders of the cross” as well as counterdemonstrations to insist on its removal. Palace security guards removed the cross from public view in September, and it was transferred to St. Anne’s Church at the end of the year.
The PO government continued to improve relations with Russia in the second half of 2010. Domestically, it focused on meeting immediate economic challenges. Although the Polish economy maintained relatively strong growth during the year, the budget deficit reached nearly 8 percent of gross domestic product.
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. While the prime minister is responsible for most government policy, the president’s position also carries significant influence, particularly relating to defense and foreign policy. The 100-member Senate, the upper house, can delay and amend legislation but has few other powers.
Corruption remains a problem and often goes unpunished. In September 2010, Mariusz Kamiński, the former head of the Central Anticorruption Bureau, was formally charged with abuse of power after being suspended from his position in 2009 for allegedly encouraging his agents to engage in bribery and forgery. Such scandals have adversely affected Poland’s ability to attract foreign investment. Poland was ranked 41 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The 1997 constitution guarantees freedom of expression and forbids censorship. Libel remains a criminal offense, though a 2009 amendment to the criminal code eased the possible penalties. 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 most are privately owned. The state-owned Polish Television (TVP) and Polish Radio are dominant in their media, but they face growing competition from private domestic and foreign outlets. Control over TVP has been the subject of political disputes in recent years, as several bills on the station’s funding have been passed by the parliament and then vetoed by the president. 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. In May 2010, pop star Dorota “Doda” Rabczewska was charged with “offending religious sensibilities” for stating in a 2009 television interview that she believed more in dinosaurs than in the Bible. She faced up to two years in prison under Poland’s blasphemy laws; the trial was pending at year’s end.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, though certain 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 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. They also receive privileged representation in the parliament, as their political parties are not subject to the minimum vote threshold of 5 percent to achieve representation. Some groups, particularly the Roma, are subject to discrimination in employment and housing, racially motivated insults, and, less frequently, physical attacks. Poland’s homosexual community also faces discrimination, and the constitution recognizes only heterosexual marriages. In March 2010, the European Court of Human Rights found that Poland had violated the rights of a homosexual man by denying his petition to inherit his deceased partner’s tenancy agreement.
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 seats in the Sejm and 8 percent in the Senate. However, domestic violence against women remains a serious concern. Trafficking in women and girls for the purpose of prostitution also remains a problem. A law stipulating that pedophiles convicted of certain crimes (such as incest) must be chemically castrated upon their release took effect in June 2010,drawing significant criticism from human rights groups. Women who undergo illegal abortions do not face criminal charges, but any person who assists in the termination of pregnancies—including medical staff—can face up to three years in prison.