Poland | Freedom House

Nations in Transit



Nations in Transit 2011

2011 Scores

Democracy Score
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Regime Classification

Consolidated Democracy

National Democratic Governance
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Electoral Process
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Society
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Independent Media
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Local Democratic Governance
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Judicial Framework and Independence
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Capital: Warsaw
Population: 38.2 million
GNI/capita, PPP: US$18,290

Source: The data above was provided by The World Bank, World Development Indicators 2011.

*Starting with the 2005 edition, Freedom House introduced separate analysis and ratings for national democratic governance and local democratic governance, to provide readers with more detailed and nuanced analysis of these two important subjects.

NOTE: The ratings reflect the consensus of Freedom House, its academic advisers, and the author(s) of this report. The opinions expressed in this report are those of the author(s). The ratings are based on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 representing the highest level of democratic progress and 7 the lowest. The Democracy Score is an average of ratings for the categories tracked in a given year. 

Executive Summary: 

In 2010, Poland’s postcommunist democratic institutions underwent an endurance test of unprecedented character and scale. On April 10, a passenger plane of the Polish air force crashed as it attempted to land at Smolensk airport in western Russia, killing all 96 people on board. Among the victims were President Lech Kaczynski, his wife Maria, and numerous senior military and civilian officials. Such a severe death toll among the top government leadership might have precipitated a political crisis if the procedures of succession had been less clearly outlined, or if the process for filling the vacant positions had lacked transparency or legitimacy. However, while the tragedy left the entire nation in a state of shock and sorrow, the institutions of governance never ceased to function in accordance with all applicable legal requirements.

The most important institutional issue to be resolved in the days following the Smolensk crash was the question of the presidential succession. Bronisław Komorowski, the marshal (speaker) of the Sejm, the lower house of parliament, assumed the duties of the president in an acting capacity and scheduled a presidential election for June 20. As the designated candidate of the ruling Civic Platform (PO) party, Komorowski won the presidency in the second round of voting on July 4, and was sworn into office on August 6. The Smolensk crash and its aftermath dominated Polish politics for the majority of 2010.

National Democratic Governance. Following the unexpected death of numerous political elites in April, constitutional procedures were successfully implemented to replace the president of the republic and other state officials. The next officers in the chain of command filled the posts of deceased military commanders. Deputies to the Sejm and members of the Senate, the upper house of parliament, were replaced in accordance with the provisions of the electoral law. As prescribed by the constitution, the Sejm elected a new ombudsman and approved the president’s choice of a new National Bank president. The efficiency displayed by the system of governance in this process of recovery was even more remarkable given the fact that it took place in a highly contentious political environment. While some of the appointments triggered political controversies, none was questioned from a purely legal standpoint. The overall response proved that the country’s democracy has solid foundations and that political institutions function properly even under the most extreme duress. Consequently, Poland’s national democratic governance rating improves from 3.25 to 2.75.

Electoral Process. In 2010, Poles participated in separate presidential and local elections. Taking place in the wake of the Smolensk crash, both polls were conducted in a solemn atmosphere, without excessive negative campaigning or any major disturbances, conflicts, or violations of civil rights. In the presidential vote, the candidate of the center-right PO party, Bronisław Komorowski, defeated the twin brother of the late president, Jarosław Kaczynski of the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party. The PO-PiS rivalry is likely to dominate Polish politics for years to come. The mutual animosity of these two parties impedes fruitful cooperation between the government and the opposition. Nevertheless, the efficient, transparent conduct of free and fair elections in the aftermath of Poland’s national tragedy stands as a model of democratic practice. Poland’s electoral process rating improves from 1.75 to 1.50.

Civil Society. The Polish civil society sector benefits from a sound legal framework and a high level of public involvement at the grassroots level, with public-opinion data showing that citizens feel more empowered than in the past. In 2010, the reports and analyses of nongovernmental organizations including Transparency International, Reporters Without Borders, the Helsinki Foundation, and many others continued to form an important contribution to the public debate on major national issues. Poland’s civil society rating remains unchanged at 1.50.

Independent Media. Polish media are free but highly partisan. While professional associations emphasize accepted standards of objectivity in reporting, journalists in both print and electronic media habitually blur the line between reporting facts and expressing opinions. The biased coverage of the presidential campaign by the public Polish Television (TVP) network was documented by independent monitoring. Changes made to the media law and the institutional framework of Polish public broadcasting in 2010 have the potential to increase political independence and objectivity in future reporting. Nevertheless, the partisan environment persisted during the year, as did laws that facilitate defamation and libel suits against journalists. Poland’s independent media rating remains unchanged at 2.25.

Local Democratic Governance. The municipal, county, and provincial elections conducted in November 2010 provided ample evidence of the strength of local democracy in Poland. Candidates fielded by the ruling PO–Polish People’s Party coalition performed well overall, but in many areas a plurality of votes were cast in favor of local organizations and ad hoc coalitions of citizens. Incumbents generally retained their positions, indicating a high level of citizen satisfaction with governance at the local level. Owing to the well-established legal framework and active civic involvement in local affairs, Poland’s local democratic governance rating remains unchanged at 1.75.

Judicial Framework and Independence. Contemporary Poland inherited many ills of the communist-era judiciary, including practices that undermine the independence of state prosecutors. The separation of the offices of the justice minister and the prosecutor general, which became effective in March 2010, could provide a remedy for this problem. But the government may lack the political will to fully adhere to the principles of judicial independence, as evidenced by partisan considerations in the selection of justices for the Constitutional Tribunal. Because of these problems and a lack of progress on improving the work conditions and compensation of judges and prosecutors, Poland’s judicial framework and independence rating remains unchanged at 2.50.

Corruption. Poland has a well-developed network of institutions dealing with the problem of corruption. However, developments in 2010 confirmed suspicions that the anticorruption institutions themselves are not entirely free from corruption, with some officials serving partisan political interests rather than the public interest. Because of such accusations of political expediency in anticorruption institutions, Poland’s corruption rating remains unchanged at 3.25.

Outlook for 2011. Polish politics in 2011 will be defined by the run-up to the parliamentary elections, scheduled for October. The animosity between the two major parties, PO and PiS, dominated the political discourse in 2010, and will undoubtedly loom large in 2011 as well. The question of responsibility for the Smolensk accident will likely remain the main bone of contention, steering public attention away from pressing economic and social issues, such as the public debt and unemployment. Yet the public may grow weary of the partisan quarreling on the right and shift support to the Democratic Left Alliance or new entrants to the political arena, such as dissenters from PiS or PO. In the areas of civil society, independent media, local governance, judiciary, and corruption, no dramatic changes are expected.

National Democratic Governance: 

In 2010, Poland’s postcommunist democracy underwent an endurance test of unprecedented character and scale. On April 10, a Tu-154 passenger plane operated by the Polish air force crashed during its approach to Smolensk airport in western Russia, killing all 96 people on board. Among the dead were President Lech Kaczynski, his wife, and many senior military and civilian officials. The group was on its way to a memorial service for Polish officers executed by Soviet forces in the infamous Katyn Forest Massacre of 1940.

In addition to the presidential couple, the list of deceased included two deputy marshals (speakers) of the Sejm, the lower house of parliament, and 13 other Sejm deputies; the deputy marshal of the Senate and two other senators; the civil rights commissioner (ombudsman); the president of the Polish National Bank (NBP); the president of the Institute of National Remembrance; the chief of the general staff of the Polish armed forces and eight other generals, including the commanding officers of all service branches; the chief of staff of the president’s chancellery; the head of the National Security Bureau; and three deputy cabinet ministers (of foreign affairs, national defense, and culture), in addition to several civil servants, leaders of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), members of the clergy, members of the president’s security detail, the plane’s crew, and private citizens. The last group included Anna Walentynowicz, the legendary leader of the anticommunist Solidarity movement.

Such a severe death toll among the nation’s top leadership could have created a constitutional crisis if the procedures of succession were not clearly outlined in the constitution and other legal acts, or if the process of filling the vacant positions lacked transparency or legitimacy. While the tragedy left the entire country in a state of shock and sorrow, the institutions of the state never ceased to function in accordance with all applicable legal requirements.

After the fall of the communist regime in 1989, a series of legal acts—the constitutional amendments of 1989, the “little constitution” of 1992, and the adoption of the current constitution in 1997—established a dual-executive system of government. Poland is governed by the prime minister and cabinet, which are politically responsible to the Sejm. However, the president of the republic, elected by popular vote, is also endowed with considerable powers. This arrangement has resulted in several disputes regarding the division of responsibilities between the president and the prime minister and cabinet. Disagreements between the late president Kaczynski, founder of the conservative opposition party Law and Justice (PiS), and current prime minister Donald Tusk of the center-right Civic Platform (PO) party were particularly frequent and contentious, as demonstrated by their decision to participate in two separate memorial services in Katyn in 2010. Prime Minister Tusk, invited by his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, led an official Polish delegation to ceremonies on April 7. Putin used the occasion to express his condemnation of the crimes committed by the Soviets against Polish citizens in Katyn and elsewhere. This surprising statement indicated a potential for deeper reconciliation between Poland and Russia, whose bilateral relations had been strained in recent years.

President Kaczynski, who did not receive an official invitation from Russia, insisted nonetheless on his participation in the events commemorating the Katyn Forest Massacre. Consequently, another ceremony, without the participation of Russian officials, was scheduled for April 10. At the president’s invitation, the civilian and military officials listed above joined him, as did a group of war veterans and victims’ relatives. No cabinet ministers were invited, meaning the accident did not directly affect the prime minister’s side of the dual executive. This contributed to the sense of continuity in government in the wake of the tragedy.

The most important institutional issue to be resolved in the days following the Smolensk crash was the question of presidential succession. There is no office of vice president in the Polish system of government, and in the event of the president’s death before the end of the term, the constitution mandates a new election. The marshal of the Sejm, who serves as acting president, has 14 days to announce the date of the election, which can take place no later than 60 days after the announcement. Marshal Bronisław Komorowski assumed his duties as acting president on April 10, and on April 21 he announced that the presidential election would be held on June 20, with the runoff on July 4.

Legally prescribed procedures were also followed for the replacement of the other state officials who lost their lives in the Smolensk accident. The respective officers who came next in the chain of command filled the posts of the deceased military commanders. Deputies to the Sejm were replaced, in accordance with the electoral law, by the runners-up on their respective party lists in each district. New elections were held for the three vacant Senate seats, also as stipulated by electoral law. In accordance with the constitution, the Sejm elected a new ombudsman and approved the president’s choice of a new NBP president. The president appointed new officials in his chancellery, and the prime minister appointed new deputy ministers of foreign affairs, defense, and culture. By the end of the year, only the post of president of the Institute of National Remembrance remained vacant, due to ongoing revisions in the laws governing that institution.

Some of the government appointments stirred political controversies, but none was questioned from a purely legal standpoint. One dispute centered on the formal powers of the acting president of the NBP, in this case appointed from among  the NBP vice presidents. The NBP president serves, ex officio, as chairman of the Monetary Policy Council (RPP), and some constitutional experts suggested that the NBP acting president could not automatically assume the RPP chairmanship. This controversy became moot with the prompt selection of the new permanent NBP president on June 11.

The efficiency displayed in the government’s recovery from such unprecedented personnel losses was even more remarkable given the fact that the process took place in a highly contentious political environment. The overwhelming feelings of national unity evident to any observer in the days immediately following the Smolensk crash subsided rather quickly. Arguably, the most important precipitating factor was the selection of Wawel Cathedral as the burial place of Kaczynski and his spouse. The cathedral, adjacent to the Royal Wawel Castle in Kraków, is the tomb of Polish kings. The decision was made by Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, Archbishop

of Kraków, allegedly at the insistence of the late president’s family. Among the president’s survivors were his mother, daughter, and twin brother, Jarosław Kaczynski, the cofounder and current leader of PiS.

Regardless of the actual motives behind the choice of Wawel as the resting place of President Kaczynski, the decision could be perceived as instrumental in securing his status as a national hero who met his death en route to a site of Polish martyrdom. Opponents of the decision pointed out the many shortcomings of Kaczynski’s presidency, confirmed by his poor ratings in recent opinion surveys; in polls conducted by the Warsaw-based Center for Public Opinion Research (CBOS) in 2009 and 2010, his approval rate oscillated between 23 and 31 percent. Assessments of the late president were split along party lines, which deepened the rift between PO and PiS.

Both parties have roots in the anticommunist Solidarity movement of the 1980s, but they have gradually grown apart since 2005. In fact, they represent significantly different visions of the social and political order in Poland, and of Poland’s place in Europe. The animosity between them dominated Polish politics in 2010 and is likely to loom large in 2011 as well. The main bone of contention during the year was the question of responsibility for the Smolensk accident. The Tusk government, following the rules of the Convention on International Civil Aviation (or Chicago Convention), cooperated with its Russian counterpart in investigating the causes of the crash. PiS deputies to the Sejm established an extraconstitutional committee to monitor the progress of the investigation. Its chairman, Antoni Macierewicz, made several public statements suggesting Russian culpability for the crash and a coverup by the Tusk government.

Despite the partisan acrimony, the events of 2010 proved that Poland’s democracy has a solid foundation, and that the country’s political institutions function properly even under extreme duress.

Electoral Process: 

In 2010, Poles participated in separate elections to choose the president and to elect local government officials. Both elections were conducted in a solemn atmosphere and in an orderly fashion, without any major disturbances, conflicts, or violations of civil rights.

The constitution stipulates in Article 127 that the president shall be elected for a five-year term in universal, equal, and direct elections conducted by secret ballot no sooner than 100 days and no later than 75 days before the serving president’s term expires. The late president Kaczynski was elected in 2005, and his term would have expired on December 23, 2010. His death in the Smolensk plane crash on April 10 necessitated an early election, as prescribed by Article 128.2 of the constitution. Marshal of the Sejm Komorowski announced on April 20 that the first round of the election would be held on June 20, and the runoff on July 4.

Article 127.3 of the constitution requires that a would-be presidential candidate collect 100,000 signatures of eligible voters in order to be registered. The timetable of an early election, as outlined in the presidential election law, gives only 15 days to accomplish this task. Nonetheless, a total of 10 candidates qualified and ultimately participated in the vote. Among them were the official candidates of the four major political parties.

Komorowski was selected as the PO candidate in a party primary, defeating Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski. This was the first time in the history of Polish presidential elections that a major party candidate was chosen through a primary open to all of the party’s members. The introduction of this form of intraparty democracy was only partially successful, as the turnout of eligible primary voters was relatively low at 47.5 percent.[1]

Some in the media and among leaders of other parties objected to the idea of Komorowski running for office while serving as acting president. The main questions were related to his ability to perform two state jobs while running an electoral campaign and the potential that the media exposure related to his official functions would give him an unfair advantage over other candidates. However, no formal regulations prevent the acting president or the marshal of the Sejm from running in a presidential election. Despite the criticism, Komorowski did not resign or take leave from his official posts during the campaign period.

Before becoming president and renouncing his party affiliation, as is customary, the late Kaczynski had led PiS with his twin brother, Jarosław. Lech Kaczynski had been expected to seek reelection at the end of his term, and after his death, Jarosław was seen within the party as his natural replacement. The grief-stricken Jarosław Kaczynski appeared reluctant to step in, but as no other viable candidate emerged from the party ranks, he ultimately announced his candidacy.

Among those who died in the Smolensk crash was Jerzy Szmajdzinski, who had been selected as the presidential candidate of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) party. To replace him, the party chose its chairman, Grzegorz Napieralski. The Polish Peasant Party (PSL), the junior partner in the ruling coalition, also fielded its chairman, Deputy Prime Minister Waldemar Pawlak.

Despite the emotionally charged atmosphere in the aftermath of the Smolensk crash, the major candidates and their supporters largely avoided any excessive negative campaigning. The only problem raised by some observers was the partisan character of election coverage in the media, particularly on the public Polish Television (TVP) network, which favored Kaczynski. Although he was an opposition party candidate, the TVP leadership had been installed during PiS’s period in government (2005–07).

The candidates of the two major parties led the election’s first round: Komorowski collected 41.5 percent of the vote, and Kaczynski took 36.5 percent. Napieralski placed third with 13.7 percent, and none of the remaining seven candidates received more that 2.5 percent. Komorowski sealed his victory in the runoff against Kaczynski, capturing 53 percent of the vote.

In May, a major flood devastated scores of towns and villages across the country. Some local leaders called for the prime minister to declare a state of natural disaster in the affected territories. According to Article 228.7 of the constitution, no election can be held until 90 days after the termination of a state of natural disaster. Constitutional experts agreed that this provision would override the rule that the election must take place no later than 74 days after a president’s death. Eventually, the Tusk government decided to cope with the flood damage without introducing any extraordinary measures. A total of 202 formal protests were subsequently submitted to the Supreme Court to question the validity of the election, but the justices ruled that the objections were unfounded.

The results of the presidential election revealed, once again, the extent of political polarization in Poland. The candidates of the two major parties collected 78 percent of the votes in the first round, leaving a mere 22 percent to all other candidates. The mutual animosity between PO and PiS, though relatively muted during the campaign period, erupted with a new intensity after the election. Both are often labeled by foreign observers as “parties of the right,”[2] but their respective political platforms and messages are different. PiS tends to emphasize the need to preserve the Polish nation as a community based on traditional values, rooted in the Roman Catholic religion, and bonded by a sense of social solidarity. The party is staunchly conservative on cultural issues, but advocates socioeconomic policies typically associated with leftist ideologies, such as the expansion of the welfare state and opposition to privatization. PO, without negating the importance of national traditions, tends to accentuate the need to modernize Poland along Western European lines, with a free-market economy, pluralist democracy, and respect for individual human rights. While firmly neoliberal on socioeconomic issues, the party leans toward a conservative stance on cultural matters. Consequently, PiS and PO appeal to different constituencies: the former finds a devoted following among the traditionalist rural communities in southern and eastern Poland, while the latter enjoys particularly strong support among the urban middle class.

It should be noted that neither PiS nor PO has ever been ideologically monolithic. In late 2010, both parties experienced dissent within their ranks. A maverick PO leader from Lublin, Janusz Palikot, left the party to establish his own “movement.” PiS lost over a dozen Sejm deputies when some of its more liberal-minded leaders—including Jarosław Kaczynski’s campaign manager, Joanna Kluzik-Rostkowska, who was criticized for choosing a moderate tone for the campaign—decided to leave the party and establish a new organization, Polska Jest Najwazniejsza (loosely translated as Poland First).

The ongoing hostility between the two leading parties represents a potential threat to the quality of Polish democracy, as it impedes any fruitful cooperation between the government and the opposition. A case in point may be Jarosław Kaczynski’s refusal to participate in the work of the National Security Council (RBN), whose members serve at the president’s discretion and to which President Komorowski appointed, besides government officials, leaders of the parliamentary opposition. Kaczynski’s decision may be viewed as an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the Komorowski presidency. Nevertheless, in December 2010, in a rare show of unity, the Sejm easily adopted a new electoral code that combined all electoral regulations into a single legal act.

Civil Society: 

The communist regime attempted to replace the horizontal ties of civil society with vertical ones, in which party-state agencies played at least an intermediary role in all public social relations. Consequently, Polish civil society development has been relatively weak in the postcommunist era. In a 2010 report by CBOS, 72 percent of adults admitted that they did not belong to any voluntary organization, and only 8 percent claim membership in three or more organizations.[3] Yet these numbers represent an improvement over the 2008 figures of 80 percent and 4 percent, respectively. The younger, well-educated inhabitants of larger cities are among the most likely to engage in formal membership. But the same is true for farmers: of those who declare farming as their main occupation, 40 percent belong to at least one organization, and 16 percent to three or more. Religiosity is also associated with membership in associations, and not only in church-affiliated groups.

Participation in the transformation of the old command economy into a new free-market economy has taken precedence over public involvement in the development of civil society. Voluntary associations, from chambers of commerce to charities and social clubs, have tended to emerge with the aim of both facilitating and supplementing horizontal relationships among economic actors. The growing involvement in noneconomic voluntary organizations in 2010 may indicate that Poland has now developed the economic foundations of civil society.

Engagement in the civic sector is generally expected to generate a sense of political empowerment among citizens. Public-opinion data show unequivocally that citizens of Poland feel more empowered than in the past. In 2010, 36 percent declared that people like them have influence over national matters, up from 30 percent in 2008 and a dramatic increase from 7 percent in 1992. Even more telling are data on the influence of civil society in the local community: 52 percent felt such influence in 2010, up from to 39 percent in 2008 and 16 percent in 1992.[4]

The major NGOs active in Poland include chapters of such international organizations as Transparency International, Reporters Without Borders, and the Helsinki Foundation, as well as homegrown groups that receive financing from both domestic and foreign sources. Among the latter, the Batory Foundation has since 2006 run a program that monitors election coverage by TVP. In 2010, it issued reports on the presidential and local elections that were based on solid research and provided an important, impartial contribution to the debate on the politicization of Polish public media. The Institute for Public Affairs (ISP), a think tank studying the quality of democracy and public debate in Poland, has made a significant impact; ISP analyses contributed to provisions of the 2010 law on local elections and the recently adopted electoral code that should facilitate greater citizen participation in elections.

In some cases, groups of citizens or formal organizations, particularly those on the political extremes, pursued aims or interests that disrupted public order in 2010, and did so with disregard for the rules of procedural democracy. For example, against the wishes of the president’s chancellery and Warsaw city authorities, a group of citizens for several months prevented the removal of a cross placed in front of the presidential palace as a temporary memorial in honor of the late president Kaczynski. These self-appointed “Defenders of the Cross” invoked Article 196 of the penal code, which criminalizes the defiling of objects of worship, reviving debates on the provision’s role in restricting freedom of speech. Eventually, the cross was moved to a nearby church.

At the other end of the political spectrum, a group of organizations that included radical socialists, anarchists, feminists, and gay-rights activists called for the blockade of a march organized in Warsaw on November 11 (Poland’s independence day) by radical right-wing nationalist associations.[5] The organizers of the march requested and received authorization from the city authorities. Those calling for the blockade explicitly denied the right of the alleged “neo-fascists” to hold a legal demonstration and refused to seek the city’s permission for their counterdemonstration. The nationalists, despite police protection, were forced by the counterdemonstrators to alter the route of their march.

Independent Media: 

Polish media enjoy virtually unrestricted freedom of expression. There are no taboo subjects, government policies are freely praised or denounced, and public officials at all levels are subject to harsh criticism. Press freedom is guaranteed by the constitution, and some of the limitations codified in criminal law are commonly considered reasonable and constitutional. Among these are the criminalization of totalitarian propaganda (Article 256 of the penal code) and “hate speech” directed at members of groups defined by ethnicity, race, or religion (Article 257). However, other limitations, like the penalization of speech that may defame public officials, are more controversial. Article 135.2 of the penal code, which prescribes jail time for defamation of the president, has been widely criticized. In June 2010, a 2009 revision to the criminal code took effect, lowering the maximum sentence for defamation of the president from three years in prison to one.[6] Law enforcement authorities seldom invoke such penal code provisions against the media. Journalists much more often face civil suits for libel or defamation. A number of small changes were made to Poland’s press law in December. For example, a timeframe was introduced for prepublication review; the lack of such a deadline had previously allowed politicians to block publication of a story by not completing the review process. Although media registration remains mandatory and still includes online press, other online media, such as blogs and personal websites, are now exempt from registration.[7]

While professional associations emphasize accepted standards of objectivity in reporting, journalists in both print and electronic media habitually blur the line between reporting facts and expressing opinions. The print media in Poland have a tradition of partisanship. In the past, major political parties were often owners and publishers of popular and influential newspapers, but this is no longer the case. Neither of the two major parties, PO and PiS, has ever been a publisher of a newspaper or magazine. The two other parties represented in the parliament, as successors to parties of the communist era, had inherited their press organs, but none recorded any commercial success and they eventually ceased publication.

The Polish press, therefore, is partisan by choice and free of any direct influence by political parties. It continues to play a watchdog role with respect to government policies and the actions of all political factions. While Polish newspapers and magazines individually voice their various ideological preferences, they collectively serve the public interest well. Similar partisanship can be found among privately owned broadcast media, which include several television networks and a number of radio stations. The Torun-based Radio Maryja represents the views of fundamentalist Catholics; in the 2010 presidential election, along with some members of the Catholic hierarchy and clergy, Radio Maryja endorsed the candidacy of Jarosław Kaczynski.

While the partisanship of privately owned media is commonly accepted, there is an expectation that public media will maintain proper objectivity in reporting and editorializing. This applies in particular to TVP, the public television network, which is still the main source of news for the Polish people. During the 2010 presidential campaign, the station was widely criticized for its biased coverage, which favored Kaczynski over Komorowski, the candidate of the governing PO party. While the airtime allotted to Komorowski exceeded that given to any of his opponents, he was presented in negative ways for almost half of that time, in contrast to his main rivals, Kaczynski and Napieralski, who received virtually no negative coverage.[8] This anti-PO bias reflected the composition of TVP’s governing and oversight bodies, respectively, the Managing Board (Zarzad) and the Program Board (Rada Programowa). Both bodies were dominated by appointees from Kaczynski’s period as prime minister. Despite efforts by the PO-PSL government, no changes in the composition of the TVP leadership were possible before the 2010 election, as the main regulatory body, the National Broadcasting Council (KRRiTV), was also pro-PiS.

The KRRiTV was created in 1992 to provide unbiased control of both public and private media, and performed functions ranging from issuing broadcasting licenses to content monitoring. Its special role and independence from the executive power were confirmed in the 1997 constitution (Articles 213–15). Since its inception, however, the KRRiTV has been a highly politicized body. In June 2010, the Sejm, Senate, and acting president rejected the council’s annual report, which automatically terminated its tenure. In August, after amendments were made to the media law, the Sejm, Senate, and president chose appointees to serve six-year terms on the new KRRiTV. Subsequently, the council announced new rules for the selection of managing bodies for Polish Radio and TVP. Following the amended law, the new Program Boards for radio and television were selected in November, while the Overseers Boards (Rady Nadzorcze) and Management Boards (Zarzady) of central and regional radio and television stations were in the process of being formed at year’s end. However, the integrity of this process was in question due to partisan bickering between government (PO) and opposition (SLD) appointees in the KRRiTV.

Local Democratic Governance: 

The first major state reform in Poland after the collapse of the communist system was the 1990 reorganization of local administration, which reintroduced principles of local self-governance that had been abolished by the communist regime. This sweeping act was arguably one of the best conceived, prepared, and executed reforms in the post-1989 history of Poland. Above all, it made the municipality (gmina) the basic unit of public administration. Since the introduction of the 1990 law, the municipality has been endowed with all powers that are not specifically reserved for other levels of government. Additional refinements of the local governance system came in 1998 and 2002.

The law of 1998 established the three-level administrative division of the country and confirmed the status of the municipality as the basic unit of local government. It also reintroduced the county (powiat), which had been abolished in 1974, as the intermediate level. The highest level is the province (województwo). Currently, there are 2,479 municipalities, 65 cities endowed with the status of counties, 314 counties, and 16 provinces. The capital city of Warsaw has a special status, regulated by separate legislation. Local councils on all levels are elected every four years by universal suffrage. Elections in municipalities with fewer than 20,000 inhabitants take place in single- and multimember constituencies on a first-past-the- post basis. Elections in larger municipalities, in counties, and in provinces take place in multimember constituencies through a party-list proportional representation system, using the D’Hondt method of seat allocation.

The law of 2002 introduced direct elections of heads of local administration at the municipal level, in cities with county status, and in other cities with at least 100,000 residents. The heads of administration in ordinary counties are elected indirectly, by the county councils. There is a dual administration on the provincial level: the marshal of the provincial council represents the local self-government, while the central government is represented by a governor (wojewoda) and deputy governor (wicewojewoda) nominated by the prime minister. The governor and deputy governor run the day-to-day affairs of the province.

Local elections conducted on November 21, 2010, with runoff voting on December 5, provided substantial evidence of the viability of local democracy in Poland. Politically, the results were consistent with the outcome of the presidential election in July. Candidates fielded by the ruling PO-PSL coalition performed well in council elections at all levels. In the provincial council contests, PO gathered 30.9 percent and the PSL 16.3 percent of the popular vote, compared with PiS’s 23 percent and the SLD’s 15.2 percent. PO also outperformed other parties in elections to councils in major cities (33.6 percent), in counties (20.1 percent), and in municipalities with more than 20,000 inhabitants (19.8 percent).

However, in many localities a plurality of votes were cast in favor of local organizations and ad hoc coalitions of citizens. The four major parties together collected 85.4 percent of the vote in elections to provincial councils, but only 61.6 percent in elections to councils in major cities, 49.4 percent on the county level, and 46.0 percent on the municipal level. It should be noted that this strong performance by independents came despite the fact that provisions of the electoral law on party-list proportional representation give certain advantages to national party organizations. In first-past-the-post elections conducted in the less-populous municipalities, where there are no such advantages, candidates who identified as independents won 77 percent of all seats.

Of the mayoral posts in the 107 largest cities, 64 were won by independents. Candidates endorsed by PO prevailed in 25 cities, while those affiliated with SLD won in 11, PiS in 6, and the PSL in one. Among the most popular independent candidates were several incumbents seeking reelection. For example, Wojciech Szczurek in Gdynia collected 87.4 percent of the vote, and Rafał Dutkiewicz in Wrocław secured 71.7 percent. But party-affiliated incumbents like Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz in Warsaw and Paweł Adamowicz in Gdansk, both of PO, also won outright victories in the first round without the need for a runoff.

The generally good performance of incumbents and the parties of the ruling coalition seems to indicate high levels of citizen satisfaction with governance on the national and local levels. The popularity of mayors and other leaders on the local level may be attributed to their ingenuity in acquiring and utilizing resources from grants awarded by the European Union (EU).

The legal framework of local governance gives communities ample opportunities to seek solutions to local problems. Municipalities set their own budgets based on revenues coming from taxes (a real-estate tax and a fraction of the income taxes paid by inhabitants), local fees, direct and indirect state subsidies, and grants from the EU and other sources. In 2010, the budgets of local governments were balanced equally between locally generated revenue and external subsides and grants.[9]

Nationwide, turnout for the local elections was 47.3 percent in the first round and 35.3 percent in the runoff, which was conducted only in municipalities, towns, and cities where none of the candidates for the head of local administration won a majority in the first round. This turnout, albeit low by European standards, was only slightly lower than the turnout in the 2010 presidential (54.9 percent) and 2007 parliamentary (53.9 percent) elections, and significantly higher than in the 2009 elections for the European Parliament (24.5 percent).

Judicial Framework and Independence: 

Contemporary Poland inherited its judicial framework from the communist regime. Formally, it does not differ significantly from analogous institutions in other continental European states, as the communists adopted the judicial institutions of the pre–World War II Polish state (the Second Republic). Historically, the judiciary has been shaped mostly by German and French influences, with independent courts and a centralized system of state prosecutors’ offices. Toward the end of the communist era, the authorities established new institutions, such as the Chief Administrative Court, the civil rights commissioner, the Constitutional Tribunal, and the Tribunal of State. Although they were created somewhat disingenuously to pacify the popular unrest of the Solidarity movement, these institutions proved well suited to the needs of a young democracy and have enjoyed high levels of esteem among the public.

However, beyond the sound institutional framework, contemporary Poland inherited many ills of the communist judiciary. Polish judges and prosecutors are overworked, which leads to delays at all stages of the judicial process. In civil cases, the average time elapsing from the filing of the complaint to the execution of the decision exceeds the average for Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries by a factor of two,[10] and delays in criminal cases often lead to prolonged detention before sentencing.[11] There was no significant progress on addressing these problems in 2010.

Polish judges and prosecutors are also underpaid. The entry-level salary of a judge equals the average salary in the public sector multiplied by a factor of 2.05 to 2.36, which makes Polish judges, along with their Latvian colleagues, the worst paid in the EU.[12] Polish state prosecutors also trail their European counterparts in this respect. To demand better pay, judges and prosecutors organized a nationwide protest in November 2010, known as the Day Without the Docket (Dzien bez wokandy).

Among the most troubling legacies of the communist past are practices that undermine judicial independence. While in 2010 there were no major instances involving judges, the independence of state prosecutors was questioned on several occasions during public hearings conducted by special investigative committees of the Sejm. For example, there were indications in the inquiries into the case of former cabinet and Sejm member Barbara Blida, who had committed suicide in 2007 during a corruption probe against her, as well as an infamous 2007 sting operation against then agriculture minister Andrzej Lepper, that the partisan interests of political leaders had led to pressure down the chain of command to the prosecutors’ offices.

An institutional change that became effective in March 2010 may provide a remedy for this problem. Since 1990, the justice minister had also been, ex officio, the prosecutor general. This institutional structure, which followed both the American example and that of the Polish Second Republic, was meant to secure parliamentary oversight of state prosecutors, as ministers are politically responsible to the Sejm. After a protracted process that involved a presidential veto in September 2009, the Sejm in October 2009 amended the law on state procurators to separate the offices of the justice minister and the prosecutor general, which is expected to free the latter from any political pressure. Following the amendment, a new prosecutor general was chosen from among qualified candidates through a national competition organized by the National Judiciary Council. The 16 self-nominated candidates were subjected to public hearings in January 2010. The names of the two top finishers were presented to President Kaczynski, who in March chose Andrzej Seremet, a judge from Kraków. The prosecutor general is now appointed for a sixyear term and can be removed from office only under circumstances specified by law, such as resignation, incapacitation, or impeachment. After the expiration of the term, the incumbent must retire from the legal profession.

While the new regulation of the prosecutor general’s office creates the potential for improvement in prosecutorial independence, it is by no means certain that the current government has the political will to obey the principles of judicial independence in general. In November 2010, the Sejm voted to choose four new justices of the Constitutional Tribunal. The panel’s 15 justices are chosen by the Sejm for nine-year terms, and the terms of individual justices are staggered to ensure continuity in the tribunal’s functioning. The vote was split along party lines. The three candidates who achieved a majority were all nominated by parties of the ruling coalition, and one also gained the support of some opposition deputies. The ruling coalition decided to reject the two candidates nominated by the opposition parties, even though many deputies admitted that one, Andrzej Wróbel, a professor of constitutional law at the Polish Academy of Sciences, had better qualifications for the job than any other candidate.[13] Consequently, one seat on the Constitutional Tribunal remained vacant at year’s end. This show of partisanship by the ruling parties constituted a serious setback in efforts to promote judicial independence in Poland.


Poland has a well-developed network of institutions that deal with the problem of corruption. The Central Anticorruption Bureau (CBA), established in 2006, is charged with both coordinative and investigative tasks. In 2007, the PO-PSL government created a separate office responsible for the development of a strategy to deal with corruption in public institutions. Julia Pitera was appointed head of the office and given the rank of junior minister in the cabinet, which made her effectively a “corruption czar” in the administration. The Internal Security Agency (ABW), the Central Bureau of Investigations (CBS), and other police units and state prosecutors’ offices also participate in combating corruption.

However, developments in 2010 confirmed suspicions that the anticorruption institutions themselves are not entirely free of corruption, with some leaders serving partisan political interests. The two major parties, PO and PiS, traded accusations of such inappropriate influence during the year, and there were several inquiries into actions by anticorruption bodies that might have been politically motivated. Probes conducted by the special investigative committees of the Sejm were of particular importance, as these multiparty bodies perform their work in virtually full transparency, with most documents and testimony (except material containing state secrets) made immediately available to the public.

One such special Sejm committee investigated the most notorious case of alleged corruption in 2009, the so-called Gambling Affair. CBA chief Mariusz Kaminski, who had been appointed by the previous, PiS-led government, accused  two PO politicians, Zbigniew Chlebowski and Mirosław Drzewiecki, of exercising undue influence over work on a bill regulating the gambling industry, allegedly on behalf of business interests in the industry. Chlebowski and Drzewiecki resigned their posts in October 2009, which led to a reconstruction of the Tusk government. Prime Minister Tusk also dismissed Kaminski, who allegedly misinformed him about the affair.

The investigation lasted until August 2010, but instead of shedding light on the affair, it painted an increasingly murky and confusing picture. The only certain elements were the confirmation of contact between the businessmen and the officials, and the fact that no significant changes to the bill were made before the story broke. The investigation also revealed a lack of transparency in regulating the gambling industry under essentially all previous governments. In the committee deliberations and in the media’s coverage, those sympathetic to the accused (and supportive of the PO government) downplayed the significance and seriousness of the business contacts. They also pointed out a general anti-PO bias in the investigations conducted by the CBA under Kaminski. The opposition, in turn, saw in the affair solid proof of far-reaching corruption among the ranks of PO and the government.

Eventually, the committee’s draft report, prepared by chairman Mirosław Sekuła of PO, cleared Chlebowski and Drzewiecki of any criminal wrongdoing. The committee approved the final version of the report in a party-line vote. Almost all members of the committee attached dissenting opinions. The report and dissents were debated in the Sejm on October 29, but did not come up for a vote on the floor. A separate investigation of the affair conducted by Pitera reached similar conclusions.

Another special committee of the Sejm, appointed in 2007, continued its examination of the case of Barbara Blida, a former minister in an SLD government who committed suicide during a search of her home by ABW agents investigating corruption allegations against her. The committee hearings pointed to possible political motivations in the case on the part of the PiS government at the time, particularly its justice minister and prosecutor general, Zbigniew Ziobro. Whether or not the accusations are ever proved, the hearings revealed many questionable aspects in the work of state prosecutors, the ABW, and the CBS. One of the most striking revelations was the confirmation of rumors that in 2007 the CBS, without proper justification or authorization, tapped the mobile telephones of several top Polish journalists.

Whereas such high-profile cases of corruption occupy the front pages of the newspapers, the public remains equally interested in street-level corruption. Research conducted by the polling institute CBOS shows that 87 percent of Poles perceive corruption as a serious problem.[14] This number, while the lowest since 2001, suggests that corruption remains rampant in the country. Respondents considered national politics and the health care system to be the most corruptionprone areas. While the majority (56 percent) of Poles believe that there is a political will to fight corruption, only 38 percent give the government a passing grade on its efforts thus far.


[1] “Komorowski wygrywa we wszystkich regionach Polski” [Komorowski wins in all Polish regions], Gazeta.pl, 27 March 2010, http://wiadomosci.gazeta.pl/Wiadomosci/1,80708,7707784,Komorowski_wygryw... (in Polish).

[2] Dan Bilefsky, “Polish Left Gets Transfusion of Young Blood,” The New York Times, 12 March 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/13/world/europe/13iht-poland.html.

[3] Center for Public Opinion Research (CBOS), Aktywnosc Polaków w organizacjach obywatelskich w latach 1998–2010 [Polish activity in civic organizations in the years 1998– 2010] (Warsaw: CBOS, 2010), 4, http://www.cbos.pl/SPISKOM.POL/2010/K_016_10.PDF (in Polish).

[4] CBOS, Samorzadnosc w Polsce—bilans dwudziestolecia [Self-governance in Poland— the balance of two decades] (Warsaw: CBOS, 2010), http://www.cbos.pl/SPISKOM.POL/2010/K_144_10.PDF (in Polish).

[5] For the full list of groups behind the counterdemonstration and other details, see the coalition’s website at http://www.11listopada.org/node/287.

[6] Alice Trudelle, “Poland’s Media—Just How Free?” Warsaw Business Journal, 25 January 2011, http://www.wbj.pl/article-52934-polands-media-just-how-free.html.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Raport z monitoringu głównych serwisów informacyjnych TVP w czasie kampanii prezydenckiej 2010 roku” [Monitoring report of TVP media coverage during the 2010 presidential campaign] (Warsaw: Fundacja im. Stefana Batorego, 2010), 20, http://www.batory.org.pl/doc/raport_prezydent.pdf.

[9] Anna Cieslak-Wróblewska, “Wiecej dla gmin i miast” [More to municipalities and cities], RP.pl, 10 December 2010, http://www.rp.pl/artykul/576656_Wiecej-dla-gmin-i-miast.html (in Polish).

[10] Maciej Bernatt and Adam Bodnar, “Wymiar Sprawiedliwosci” [The dimension of justice], in Demokracja w Polsce 2007–2009 [Democracy in Poland 2007–2009], ed. Lena Kolarska- Bobinska and Jacek Kucharczyk (Warsaw: Institute for Public Affairs, 2009), 101 (in Polish).

[11] Ibid., 103.

[12] “Sedziowie i prokuratorzy chca wiecej pieniedzy” [Judges and prosecutors want more money], Money.pl, 16 November 2010, http://prawo.money.pl/aktualnosci/wiadomosci/artykul/sedziowie;i;prokura... (in Polish).

[13] Ewa Siedlecka, “Partie nad Trybunałem” [Parties overshadow Tribunal], Gazeta Wyborcza, 27 November, 2010, http://wyborcza.pl/1,76842,8727347,Partie_nad_Trybunalem.html.

[14] CBOS, Opinia publiczna o korupcji i lobbingu w Polsce [Public opinion on corruption and lobbying in Poland] (Warsaw: CBOS, 2010), http://www.cbos.pl/SPISKOM.POL/2010/K_063_10.PDF (in Polish).