Polish history at a glance

The Polish state was formed more than 1,000 years ago and reached its golden age near the end of the 16th century under the Jagiellonian dynasty, when Poland was one of the largest, wealthiest, and most powerful countries in Europe. However, the Polish territories have also been subject to much dispute. In the mid-17th century a Swedish invasion rolled through the country in the turbulent time known as "The Deluge". Numerous wars against the Ottoman Empire, Russia, Cossacks, Transylvania and Prussia ultimately came to an end in 1699. During the following 80 years, the waning of the central government and deadlock of the institutions weakened the nation, leading to anarchistic tendencies and a growing dependency on Russia. The Enlightenment in Poland fostered a growing national movement to repair the state, resulting in the first modern written constitution in Europe in 1791. The process of reforms ceased with the three partitions of Poland between Russia, Prussia, and the Habsburg monarchy in 1772, 1793 and 1795, which ultimately dissolved the country. Poles resented their shrinking freedoms and several times rebelled against their oppressors.

At the end of WWI, a new Polish state was constituted on the borders substantially to the east of today’s Poland. A constitution was adopted in 1921 and elections with universal suffrage were held the following year. In 1926, however, General Pilsudski led a successful military coup and Poland was subsequently led by a military regime until 1939 when it was invaded by both Germany and the USSR and partitioned between the two powers. After Germany declared war on the USSR in June 1941, its forces occupied the whole of Poland until they were expelled by Soviet troops in March 1945. Poland suffered tremendous losses in life and property in the war. The Nazi authorities eliminated a large part of the population by massacres and starvation and in extermination camps.

In 1946 a unicameral parliament was established after a referendum. Legal opposition to the Polish Worker’s Party (from 1948 the Polish United Worker’s Party, PZPR) was limited almost entirely to the Peasant party, but nationalists, rightists, and some other opponents operated as underground forces. In the 1947 elections, which were deemed undemocratic by western powers, the Polish Workers’ Party (PPR) became the top political force, and established a communist regime under Wladyslaw Gomulka and Boleslaw Bierut. Edward Gierek would take over as the de-facto leader in 1970. Opposition to the Polish government was repeatedly expressed by popular demonstrations beginning in 1956, and by trade unions that coalesced into the Solidarity movement by 1980.

On 13 December 1981 martial law was imposed throughout Poland. A governing Military Council of National Salvation, led by Jaruzelski, was established; all trade-union activity was suspended, and Wałęsa and other Solidarity leaders were detained. Violent clashes between workers and security forces ensued, and thousands of protesters were arrested. In July 1983 martial law was formally ended; the Military Council of National Salvation was dissolved, and an amnesty was declared for most political prisoners and underground activists. In October Wałęsa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 1989, Solidarity was again legalized, and it participated in the negotiation of substantial political reforms that led to free elections the same year. Solidarity won a majority in both houses of the parliament. Tadeusz Mazowiecki was named prime minister in 1989, and in 1990 Lech Wałęsa was elected president. In 1990 the Solidarity-led government adopted a radical program for transforming Poland to a market economy, but the ensuing economic hardship led to widespread discontent and political instability.

Politics in the new era

Politics of Poland takes place in the framework of a parliamentary republic, whereby the prime minister of Poland is the head of government and of a pluriform multi-party system. Executive power is exercised by the government. Legislative power is vested in both the government and the two chambers of parliament, the Sejm and the Senate

In 1993, the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) became the largest party in the Diet , and formed a coalition government with Waldemar Pawlak of the Peasant’s Party (PSL) as prime minister. In 1995, SLD’s Jozef Oleksy replaced Pawlak. Former Communist leader Aleksander Kwasniewski defeated Walesa in the 1995 presidential election. Kwasniewski would go on to win a second consecutive term in the 2000 ballot.

Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS), the political bloc that grew out of the labour union, won a plurality in 1997 parliamentary elections, forming a coalition government with the market-oriented Freedom Union (UW). AWS leader Jerzy Buzek was named prime minister and pledged to speed up reform of Poland's outmoded heavy industrial base. A new constitution approved in 1997 diluted the power of the presidency and strengthened the power of the parliament. The AWS-led coalition collapsed in June 2000, but Buzek formed an AWS minority government and remained in power. Poland joined the NATO in 1999.

Following the parliamentary elections in September, 2001 the SLD formed a coalition with the Polish Labour Party (PPP) and the Union of Labour (UP), and Miller became prime minister. The AWS was badly hurt by growing unemployment and other economic problems, as well as charges of corruption and thus failed to win any seats. Economic conditions continued to worsen after 2001, with unemployment reaching 19 percent in 2003. In March 2003, disagreements over policy led the SLD to expel the PPP from the coalition and SLD continued in power with a minority government. In June, Polish voters voted in favour of accession to the European Union (EU).

Continuing high unemployment and a series of political scandals further hurt the SLD in the August 2005, parliamentary elections. Following unsuccessful negotiations between the socially conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party and the economically conservative Civic Platform (PO), the PiS subsequently formed a minority government led by Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz.

In the presidential elections in October 2005 the early favourite, Donald Tusk, leader of the PO, was beaten in the second round by the PiS candidate Lech Kaczyński. In July 2006, following a rift with his party leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, Marcinkiewicz tendered his resignation as prime minister and was replaced by Jaroslaw Kaczyński who formed a new government. From 2006 Poland thus has identical twin brothers serving as prime minister and president.


The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2006, Columbia University Press.

Recent History (Poland), in Europa World online. London, Routledge.

Rose, R. and N. Munro (2003). Elections and Parties in New European Democracies. Washington DC: CQ Press.