Freedom in the World
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Parliamentary elections in October 2011 yielded an unprecedented second term for Prime Minister Donald Tusk of the center-right Civic Platform party. The Palikot Movement, an outspoken liberal party founded in 2010, won a surprising 10 percent of the popular vote, bringing homosexual and transgender candidates into the lower house of parliament for the first time.
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 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 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 finally collapsed in 2007, prompting legislative elections in October.
The elections yielded a government led by Prime Minister Donald Tusk of the center-right Civic Platform (PO) party, in coalition with the Polish People’s Party (PSL). The relationship between Tusk and President 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 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.
The first year of Komorowski’s presidency featured increased polarization between supporters of PiS and PO, with competing narratives of the Smolensk tragedy remaining a central theme. However, voters ultimately endorsed the ruling coalition in October 2011 parliamentary elections. In the lower house (Sejm), PO won 207 seats, followed by PiS with 157 and a surprising 40 seats for the liberal Palikot Movement (RP), founded the year before by political provocateur Janusz Palikot. The PSL received 28 seats, and the SLD won 27. A representative of the ethnic German minority held the remaining seat. In the Senate, PO took 63 seats, PiS won 31, the PSL received two seats, and the remainder went to independents. The elections marked the first time in Poland’s postcommunist history that a prime minister won a second consecutive term.
From July to December, Poland held the rotating presidency of the EU, where it remained the fastest-growing national economy. However, its budget deficit stood at nearly 8 percent of gross domestic product throughout the year.
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, which is elected by proportional representation. 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, whose members are elected in individual districts, 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 charged with abuse of power after being suspended from his position in 2009 for allegedly encouraging his agents to engage in bribery and forgery. He was elected to the new parliament on the PiS party list in October 2011, potentially allowing him to avoid prosecution through parliamentary immunity. Poland was ranked 41 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 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. The government does not restrict internet access and seeks to enhance access in poorer areas. In September 2011, the parliament enacted changes to the law on freedom of information that limited access in cases where information concerning public figures might weaken the negotiating position or economic interests of the country.
The state respects freedom of religion. Religious groups are not required to register with the authorities but receive tax benefits if they do. A case against pop star Dorota “Doda” Rabczewska, accused of violating Poland’s controversial blasphemy laws in a 2009 interview, was still unresolved at the end of 2011. In August, death-metal singer Adam Darski was acquitted of offending religious feelings during a 2007 concert, with the presiding judge finding that the act of tearing up a Bible was a form of artistic expression. Academic freedom in Poland is generally respected.
Polish citizens are free to 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 the courts are notorious for delays in adjudicating cases. Prosecutors have proceeded slowly on corruption investigations, contributing to concerns that they are subject to political pressure. 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. 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.
Sexual minorities continue to face discrimination, though the first openly homosexual and transgender lawmakers—Robert Biedroń and Anna Grodzka, respectively—entered the Sejm in November 2011. Both belong to the Palikot Movement, which champions a variety of liberal and secularist causes, including access to abortion, civil unions for homosexual couples, and the elimination of religious education from public schools.
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. The 2011 Sejm elections featured a new 35 percent minimum for female candidates on party lists. Female lawmakers now hold 24 percent of the seats in the Sejm, up from 20 in the previous chamber. In August 2011, the parliament narrowly defeated a bill that would have banned all abortions—eliminating current exceptions for cases of rape or serious health problems. Women who undergo illegal abortions do not face criminal charges, but any person who assists in such actions—including medical staff—can face up to three years in prison. Domestic violence against women remains a serious concern, as does trafficking in women and girls for the purpose of prostitution.