Poland: Solidarity and a Multiparty State

Solidarity and a Multiparty State

The continued shortage and expensiveness of food and housing led to strikes in 1980, first at the Lenin Shipyards in Gdańsk and then in other cities. The striking workers formed an illegal labor union, Solidarity, led by Gdańsk shipyard worker Lech Wałęsa. Granted legal status and enormously popular, Solidarity continued to strike for higher wages, lower prices, and also for the right to strike and an end to censorship. General secretary Gierek was replaced by Stanisław Kania, who in turn was replaced by Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski. Martial law was declared in Dec., 1981; Solidarity was banned in 1982, and its representatives were arrested. Martial law was lifted in 1984, Jaruzelski became president in 1985, and all imprisoned Solidarity members were released by 1986. Solidarity, still outlawed, remained a popular force as the economy failed to improve.

In 1989, Solidarity was again legalized, and it participated in the negotiation of substantial political reforms that led to free elections in 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.

From 1990 through 1996 Poland had eight prime ministers. Hanna Suchocka became Poland's first woman to hold the post in 1992, but she lost a no-confidence vote the next year. In new elections the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) and the Polish Peasants' party (PSL) together won a majority. Waldemar Pawlak of the PSL became premier, but he resigned and was succeeded in Mar., 1995, by SLD leader Józef Oleksy. In Nov., 1995, Wałęsa was defeated in his presidential reelection bid by Aleksander Kwaśniewski, the SLD candidate. Oleksy resigned in Jan., 1996, after being accused of having spied for Moscow when he was a senior Communist party official. (Although the charges were later dropped, he was convicted in 2002 of having lied about collaborating with Polish military intelligence in the late 1960s.) He was succeeded by Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz of the SLD.

Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS), the political bloc that grew out of the labor union, won a plurality in 1997 parliamentary elections, forming a coalition government with the market-oriented Freedom Union. 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. Poland joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1999. The AWS-led coalition collapsed in June, 2000, but Buzek formed an AWS minority government and remained in power. President Kwaśniewski was reelected in Oct., 2000.

In parliamentary elections in Sept., 2001, the SLD, led by Leszek Miller, won a sizable plurality of the seats but not a majority. The SLD formed a coalition with the PSL and the Union of Labor, and Miller became prime minister. The AWS, with only 5.6% of the vote, failed to win any seats; it was badly hurt by growing unemployment and other economic problems, as well as charges of corruption. Economic conditions continued to worsen after 2001, with unemployment reaching 19% in 2003. In Mar., 2003, disagreements over policy led the SLD to expel the PSL from the coalition; the SLD continued in power with a minority government.

Government budget cuts prompted by Poland's approaching entry into the European Union eroded popular support for the SLD, leading Miller to resign as party leader early in 2004, but he remained prime minister until May, when Poland joined the European Union. Marek Belka, a former finance minister and technocrat, was confirmed as Miller's successor in June. Continuing high unemployment and a series of political scandals hurt the SLD in the Aug., 2005, parliamentary elections. The socially conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) and the economically conservative Civic Platform (PO) each won roughly a third of the seats in the lower house and entered into unsuccessful negotiations on forming a new government.

The strongly conservative turn in Polish politics continued in October when, after a runoff election, Lech Kaczyński, of the PiS, was elected president; his main opponent had been Donald Tusk, the PO candidate. PiS subsequently formed a minority government led by Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz; the government became more stable when support from two fringe parties, one far-right, the other far-left, was secured in Feb., 2006. The three parties entered into a formal coalition in Apr.–May, 2006. There were tensions, however, between the president and prime minister, and in July, 2006, Marcinkiewicz resigned, and Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of PiS and the twin brother of the president, was appointed prime minister.

The coalition collapsed in September when the leader of the leftist Self Defense party (SRP) was expelled from the government for repeatedly criticizing its policies, but SRP rejoined the government in Oct., 2006, as it and the PiS sought to avoid new elections. Poland's Communist past returned to haunt the Roman Catholic church in early 2007 when Stanisław Wielgus, who had been appointed archbishop of Warsaw, resigned before he was consecrated after it was revealed the he had collaborated with the secret police under Communist rule.

Poland's support for basing U.S. antimissile facilities in its territory strained relations with Russia in early 2007 and into 2008 when a preliminary agreement was signed (August) concerning the placement of missile interceptors in N Poland. In Nov., 2008, Russia said it would station short-range missiles in its Kaliningrad exclave, neighboring N Poland, if U.S. missiles were based in Poland. A new U.S. administration, however, suspended plans for a ballistic missile defense system in E Europe in Sept., 2009, to focus on defending against shorter range missiles, and Poland agreed in principle (Oct., 2009) to host a short-range antimissile base.

Meanwhile, the governing coalition collapsed again in Aug., 2007, and in early elections in September the PO won a plurality of the seats in parliament. The PO subsequently formed a coalition with the PSL, and PO leader Donald Tusk became prime minister. In Apr., 2010, President Kaczyński, the army chief of staff, and other high-ranking government and military officials were killed when their plane crashed while landing at Smolensk, Russia. Bronisław Komorowski, the marshal (speaker) of the Sejm, became acting president. In July, Komorowski was elected president, defeating Jarosław Kaczyński in a runoff. The Oct., 2011, parliamentary elections again produced a plurality for the PO and a majority for the PO-PSL coalition. In mid-2014 the release of secretly (and illegally) recorded conversations involving government officials making blunt statements and talking about political schemes caused controversy for Tusk's government, but he easily won (June) a confidence vote.

Tusk resigned in Sept., 2014, to become president of the EU's European Council; PO member Ewa Kopacz succeeded him as prime minister. In the 2015 presidential election Komorowski lost the office after a runoff to Andrzej Duda, the PiS candidate. The subsequent parliamentary elections gave the PiS a majority, and Beata Szydło became prime minister, but former prime minister Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the PiS, was the acknowledged power behind the president and prime minister.

The new government subsequently made changes to the constitutional court, the broadcasting system, and other government offices and powers that gave it greater influence and control, sparking criticism from the European Union. Other proposed changes in late 2016—banning abortion and restricting media access in parliament—prompted public protests and were withdrawn. In July, 2017, the parliament passed three bills reorganizing the judiciary, allowing the justice minister to replace the supreme court justices, giving control to the justice minister over the reorganization of the local judiciary, and giving the parliament power over the body that selects and regulates judges. The measures were widely denounced as a means for the ruling party to control the judiciary and sparked public protests. The president signed the local judiciary bill and vetoed the others, but new versions of those were passed and signed in December.

The laws were strongly criticized by the European Union, and provoked a constitutional confrontation with the supreme court's chief justice in July, 2018. In Oct., 2018, the European Court of Justice, in an interim injunction issued as the European Commission challenged the law, ordered Poland to stop forcibly retiring supreme court justices, and Poland subsequently amended the law to reinstate the retired justices. In 2019 the Court of Justice ruled that Poland's judicial overhaul violated EU rules. Tensions between Poland and the EU concerning political control over the judicial system continued into 2020.

Meanwhile, Szydło resigned as prime minister in Dec., 2017, and was replaced by Mateusz Morawiecki, the finance minister. In the Oct., 2019, elections, the PiS increased its share of the vote nationwide but failed to increase the number of seats it held in the Sejm and narrowly lost its majority in the Senate. The Civic Coalition placed second in the voting. Duda was reelected in July, 2020, after a runoff. A government reshuffle in Sept., 2020, gave it a more conservative cast, though Morawiecki remained prime minister; Jarosław Kaczyński became a deputy prime minister, overseeing the defense, justice, and interior ministries. The following month a constitutional court ruling that further tightened Poland's strict abortion law sparked widespread protests.

After the Feb., 2022, invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces, Poland became a major supporter of Ukraine's war efforts, supplying Ukraine with financial and military support and absorbing 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees.

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