Poland: Government and Politics

After striving for many years to be in charge of their own affairs, Poles managed to topple the Soviet-­supported authoritarian regime that ruled the country for several decades. In theory, Poland was an independent country pursuing its own destiny. In reality, its political leadership received instructions from Moscow. Puppet regimes often face popular discontent, and Polish political circumstances were no exception. Many, if not most, Poles never advocated a Communist government and were opposed to anything but democracy. Thus, for this and aforementioned historical and cultural reasons, Poland was always viewed under the magnifying glass of Soviet suspicion.

The most significant event in the 1945–1989 period of Communist domination occurred as a result of open resentment toward the totalitarian government’s policies in 1981. That year, a newly formed workers’ union in the Gdansk shipyard, called Solidarity, encountered pressure to disband. The core of this union was formed by people who were not Communist sympathizers—they simply wanted to implement political reforms. Following years of gradual improvements in personal freedom during the 1970s, ordinary Poles felt that they were in a position to make improvements in their lives. Threatened by sudden growth in Solidarity’s popularity, the government intervened. Yet despite its repressive steps, it was unable to prevent the spread of the growing belief that political reforms must be accomplished. Less than a decade later, Communism as a political force all but disappeared from Poland. It disappeared from other eastern European countries as well.

The most significant impact of Solidarity was the creation and spread of the idea that unpopular totalitarian regimes can be overthrown by nonviolent means. The Polish struggle for change accelerated reforms in other Communist countries. When Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union, introduced reforms (that eventually led to the downfall of his own regime), he understood that people desired major changes as they did in Poland in 1981. Other countries, from Czechoslovakia to Bulgaria, followed with variable success. Today, they are all democratic nations, despite the fact that Communist parties participate in the political process of most.

Solidarity’s leader, Lech Wałesa, rose quickly as a political figure. He was imprisoned for a period of time and removed from Gdansk only to return later. During the following years, he continued to advocate political reforms. This leadership and resulting widespread popularity earned Wałesa the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, and he won Poland’s first fully democratic presidential election in 1990. Soon afterward, however, Poles became dissatisfied with the slow progress of reforms and gradually changed their attitude toward Wałesa. He lost his bid for reelection in 1995 and since then has remained politically marginalized. His opponent, Aleksander Kwasniewski, served two terms and—bound by term limits—retired in 2005.


As in the United States, the distribution of power in Poland is divided among three branches of government: the legislative, executive, and judiciary. There are, however, some significant differences. For example, the electoral process works on the principle of proportional representation. Each party receives a number of seats in proportion to the percentage of votes it receives in the national election. In addition, the day-­to-­day executive business of government is conducted by a prime minister who is appointed by the president and cabinet. Poland is a parliamentary democracy, the system shared by a majority of European countries. Representatives from political parties are elected to serve in the national assembly, similar to the American system, but with a few fundamental differences.

Whereas the American electorate votes for an individual person, Polish voters (citizens over 18 years of age) vote for political parties. Each party creates a list of its candidates based on hierarchical order. For example, if, in national elections, a party receives 25 percent of the total votes, that party is allowed to have 115 deputies in the 460-member lower chamber of the parliament called the Sejm. The upper chamber of the Polish national assembly comprises 100 senators. One benefit of this system is that it allows for the presence of smaller political parties in the assembly. Many of the parties have a minor presence on a national level but are quite important locally (especially in ethnically diverse areas). Furthermore, not even local elections are based on the “winner takes all” principle but on proportional representation. A related benefit is the need for coalition governments to include two or more parties instead of a single dominant party. Europeans believe that such a system results in greater dialogue and cooperation.

Once elections are concluded and representatives selected, Poland’s president selects the candidate for the prime minister position. The individual is almost always from the party that won the highest number of representatives. His or her (Poland has only had one female leader, Hanna Suchocka, who served briefly from 1992 to 1993) goal is to form the cabinet of ministers, which needs to be approved by the assembly. If the assembly does not approve the president’s choice by a majority of votes, he or she may submit another person or eventually ask for another general election. Besides serving as the country’s official leader, the president’s powers are most often enforced to further the electoral process and prevent constitutional and other crises.

An interesting and rather unique distribution of power was created in the aftermath of recent parliamentary and presidential elections. For the first time in history, the leadership was in the hands of twins. Lech Kaczynski was elected president in 2005 and appointed his twin brother, Jaroslaw, to the prime minister post in 2006. Jaroslaw Kaczynski leads the Law and Justice Party, which holds the majority in the Sejm. His appointment was approved by the Sejm, but generated some concern about the separation of executive and legislative powers. During the summer of 2007, the government came under pressure from the public; Jaroslaw was decisively voted out as prime minister and Donald Tusk of the Civic Platform Party was voted in. Poles are becoming increasingly restless with the lack of reforms and with having a government recognized by many as the most unpredictable in Europe.

As a member of the European Union, Poland also provides representatives for the European Parliament. This body is the main legislative wing of the organization, and its purpose is similar to that of individual national assemblies. Members of the European Parliament are elected from each country, the size of delegation being determined by the size of a country’s population. Poland’s delegation is the fifth largest in the European Parliament. With 38 million residents, a population equal to that of Spain, Poland has an opportunity to be a serious voice in European affairs. Only Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and Italy have larger delegations.

The judiciary branch of the government primarily has the same role as the judicial branches of other democracies. Its domain includes overseeing any violation of the constitution, conflicts of interest between the other two branches, and protecting civil rights.

Administrative Divisions

Administrative power is regulated through several levels. The highest level is the wojewodztwa or voivodships. These are the equivalents of states, provinces, or autonomous republics in other countries, and they possess a degree of autonomy in their political and economic internal affairs. The term voivodship is of Slavic origin and means “dukedom.” Historically, it was used throughout the Slavic-
speaking areas of Europe. In Poland, as well, the term has a historical association with old regional divisions.

Currently, 16 voivodships form the Polish state, a major drop from the previous 49 political subdivisions. Individually, they differ in area and/or population, but each of them has a city of substantial size as its political and economic nucleus. The largest is the Masovian voivodship, which covers central-east
Poland around Warsaw and has a population of more than 5 million people. The attractiveness of Warsaw has contributed to the growth of this region. On the other hand, the smallest voivodship is Lubusz, a largely rural area adjacent to the German border with just over one million residents.

Each voivodship is divided into numerous powiats. These are similar to American counties and have local leadership that administers basic local affairs. The smallest administrative units in the country are municipalities that may comprise a single city or a small rural area.


A majority of Poland’s current foreign affairs issues are partially or fully related to integration in the European Union (EU). Past governments and the present leadership’s internal policies have been far from independent in terms of Poland pursuing its own decisions. Each time a country joins the European Union, it has to give up a bit of its real or perceived sovereignty for a period of time. Yet most countries are willing to take this step because it offers tremendous future benefits. In Poland there were, of course, some strong voices of dissent. Many people feared that by becoming a partner in the EU, Poland would lose its independence and again become something of a satellite state. This did not happen.

Poland’s position in European affairs is delicate yet powerful. Its voice in the European Parliament is among the strongest, due to having 54 members in the 785-member body. This number can sway a decision when a consensus is needed on a particular critical issue. During negotiations about EU reforms strategy, for example, Poland’s firm stands have contributed to various concessions in the country’s favor. Never in all its history has an independent Polish voice enjoyed such strength and influence within Europe.

There are also some duties that Poland must be fulfill in this relationship. By early 2008, Poland will fully implement the Schengen Agreement, which allows the removal of boundaries among member countries but requires improvements in overseeing non-EU boundaries. For example, the Polish boundary with Lithuania an EU country, will not be enforced as it was in the past. The borders with neighboring Belarus and Ukraine, which are not EU members, will be carefully monitored. Once a person crosses from Ukraine into Poland, he or she may continue traveling freely across the European Union but the Poles then have to provide other members with the entry data.

One of the problems with regard to border issues is Poland’s boundary with Russia’s exclave (a portion of a country that is separated from the remainder of the nation’s territory by another country) Kaliningrad Oblast. This small portion of the territory that belonged to Germany until 1945 is entirely surrounded by Polish and Lithuanian territory. People from the Kaliningrad Oblast can travel to Russia by land only if they cross through Poland or Lithuania, both EU countries. Russia has objected to the travel difficulties encountered by its citizens simply because they do not live in the European Union. On the other hand, the Schengen Agreement countries fear that allowing Russians from Kaliningrad to travel freely throughout Europe would generate serious security issues. No one, they argue, would be able to confirm who the freely traveling Russians really are, or their intentions.

Poland’s relationship with the United States has been positive, and the countries fully cooperate through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and other organizations. In fact, Poland was one of the leading voices of support during American intervention in the Middle East and sent troops to Iraq following the 2003 invasion. As part of the NATO mission in the Afghanistan conflict, some 1,200 Polish soldiers serve jointly with other forces in keeping peace and preventing the return of the Taliban.

This may change with the new government in Poland.

In 2007, another geopolitical issue arose in which Poland actively participates. Increasingly, the West is concerned about the possibility of an Iranian missile attack carrying nuclear warheads against Europe. As a result, construction of an early warning network and missile shield against such an attack is under consideration. The United States suggested Poland as one location for the installation of military hardware. This suggestion aroused the attention of Russia, which felt that such a network would violate its own national security interests. Russian president Vladimir Putin loudly voiced his protest against additional militarization near Russia’s boundaries. Once again, as has happened so many times in the past, Poland’s decisions were received with suspicion in Russia, and vice versa. Yet, as illustrated in the following chapter, Russia’s growing economic status and power are simply too important to ignore.

And, in fact, the new government in Poland may have a different position from the previous one.