Freedom in the World
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Poland’s two largest political parties—Civic Platform and Law and Justice—remained polarized in 2012. In September, a website designer was convicted of defaming the president with his blog. Legislation limiting rights to public information and public assembly were signed in 2012. The unregulated Polish lender and investment company Amber Gold collapsed, drawing widespread attention to the sometimes weak enforcement of financial regulations. One longstanding case under Poland’s controversial blasphemy law resulted in a fine for the defendant, while another dismissed in 2011 was under appeal at the end of 2012.
After being dismantled by neighboring empires in a series of 18th-century partitions, Poland enjoyed independence from 1918 to 1939, only to be invaded by Germany and the Soviet Union at the opening of World War II. The country was exploited 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 starting in 1989 and continued until Poland became a member of the European Union (EU) in 2004. 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 wide margin in 2000.
Promising to eliminate corruption and protect Polish values 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 became president 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 that 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 Kaczyński resisted the government’s generally pro-EU policy initiatives and its less antagonistic stance toward Russia. Following the deaths of President Kaczyński and 95 other passengers in an April 2010 plane crash in Smolenk, Russia, Sejm speaker Bronisław Komorowski of PO served as interim president until June elections, in which he won 53 percent of the vote in the second round.
Komorowski’s presidency has seen increasing polarization between supporters of PiS and PO. In October 2011 elections to the lower house of parliament, PO won 207 seats, followed by PiS with 157. The liberal Palikot Movement captured 40 seats, PSL took 28, and SLD won 27. A representative of the ethnic German minority held the remaining seat. In the Senate, PO took 63 seats, PiS won 31, 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.
In 2012, Poland remained the fastest-growing economy in the EU, though growth slowed throughout the year. Pension reforms in March raised the retirement age to 67, despite widespread protests. Although Prime Minister Tusk promised to end partisan hiring practices in publicly-funded positions, the daily Puls Biznesu in November published a list of 428 people associated with PO working for government-owned businesses at a total cost of €48 million ($65.3 million) over the last five years.
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 must be confirmed 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 has influence, particularly over defense and foreign policy matters. The 100 Senate members can delay and amend legislation but have few other powers.
Anticorruption laws are not always effectively implemented, and official corruption remains a problem. In May 2012, former PO deputy Beata Sawicka and the mayor of Hel peninsula received three- and two-year sentences, respectively, for fixing a tender for the purchase of Hel land. In July, journalists released recordings of a January conversation between Władysław Serafin of PSL and the former head of the Agricultural Market Agency (ARR), Władysław Łukasik. The speakers implicated PSL in nepotism and irregularities in the distribution of EU farm subsidies, particularly to a grain company owned by the ARR. Minister of Agriculture and PSL head Marek Sawicki resigned in July, and an investigation was launched, but made no progress by year’s end
The collapse of Amber Gold, an unregulated Polish lender and investment company, revealed corrupt dealings between PO officials, business interests, and the judiciary. The company’s founder, Marcin Plichta, who had past fraud convictions, was arrested on August 27 and was awaiting trial on various corruption charges at year’s end. In response to the scandal, the attorney general asked for a recall of prosecutors in Gdańsk, where Amber Gold was based, for having ignored warnings of wrongdoing from the Financial Supervision Authority.
The constitution guarantees freedom of expression and forbids censorship. Libel remains a criminal offense, though a 2009 amendment to the criminal code eased possible penalties. In September 2012, the creator of the website Antykomor.pl that satirized President Komorowski was sentenced to 15 months of restricted liberty and 600 hours of community service for defaming the president. Poland’s print media are diverse and mostly privately owned. The dominant state-owned Polish Television and Polish Radio face growing competition from private domestic and foreign outlets. When the PO-controlled National Broadcasting Council refused a digital broadcast license to TV Trwam, an ultraconservative TV station linked to PO’s major political rival, PiS, PiS supporters protested, and the Constitutional Court ruled to license TV Trwam through 2022. In September 2011, the parliament enacted changes to the freedom of information law intended to bring Poland in line with EU regulations. One controversial provision, submitted after the rest of the changes had already been debated in the Sejm, would have limited access to information deemed threatening to the country’s political and economic interests. In April 2012, the Polish Constitutional Tribunal nullified the provision in question on procedural grounds. A May 2012 court ruling found that the Central Anti-Corruption Bureau (CBA) had violated journalist Bogdan Wróblewski’s privacy rights by monitoring his phone records in the 2005–2007 period. Wróblewski was one of ten journalists considered critical of the PiS-Samoobrona-LPR coalition government whose phone records were monitored during this time. The CBA appealed the verdict, and a new trial was pending at year’s end.
The government does not restrict internet access. However, in January, thousands protested Prime Minister Tusk’s signing of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement establishing international standards for enforcing intellectual property rights, accusing it of facilitating internet censorship.
The state respects freedom of religion. Religious groups are not required to register with the authorities but receive tax benefits if they do. In August 2011, a judge ruled that death-metal singer Adam Darski was not guilty of blasphemy for tearing up a Bible during a 2007 concert. However, in 2012, the acquittal was appealed and brought before the Supreme Court, which ruled in October that a person may be found guilty of blasphemy, a crime punishable by up to two years in prison, even if it was unintentional. In 2013, Darski’s case will be re-examined by a district court. In January, popstar Dorota “Doda” Rabczewska was also fined about €1,200 for having violated the blasphemy law during a 2009 interview. Academic freedom in Poland is generally respected.
Polish citizens are free to assemble legally, and various demonstrations took place throughout 2012 on issues ranging from internet freedom to economic austerity measures. A controversial amendment passed in October 2012 grants local authorities increased discretion to limit demonstrations in their districts, allegedly to maintain public order. Freedom of association is respected in law and in practice. Poland has a robust labor movement, though certain groups—including the self-employed and private contractors—may not join unions. Complicated legal procedures hinder workers’ ability to strike, and labor leaders have complained of harassment by employers.
The judiciary is independent, but the courts are notorious for delays in adjudicating cases. Prosecutors’ slow action on corruption investigations have prompted concerns that they are subject to political pressure. Pretrial detention periods can be lengthy, and prison conditions are poor by European standards.
Ethnic minorities generally enjoy generous legal rights and protections, 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, experience employment and housing discrimination, racially motivated insults, and, sometimes, physical attacks. Sexual minorities continue to face discrimination, though the first openly gay and transgender lawmakers entered the Sejm in November 2011.
Women hold senior positions in government and the private sector, including 24 percent of the seats in the Sejm. Poland’s abortion laws are among the strictest in Europe. Women who undergo illegal abortions do not face criminal charges, but those who assist in the procedures—including medical staff—can face up to three years in prison. In November 2012, the European Court of Human Rights ordered Poland to pay a 14-year-old rape victim €61,000 for failing to provide her with “unhindered” access to an abortion. Domestic violence against women remains a serious concern, as does trafficking in women and girls for the purpose of prostitution.