Polish legislative election, 1989

The Polish legislative election of 1989 was the tenth election to the Sejm, the parliament of the Polish People’s Republic, and the first election to the recreated Senate of Poland. The first round took place on 4 June. Second round on 18 June. It was the closest thing to a free election in the country since 1928, and the first since the communist Polish United Workers Party abandoned its monopoly of power in April.

Not all parliamentary seats were contested, but the resounding victory of the Solidarity opposition in the freely contested races paved the way to the fall of Communism in Poland. It swept all of the freely contested seats in the Sejm, and all except for one seat in the entirely freely-contested Senate. In the election’s aftermath, Poland became the first country of the Eastern Bloc in which democratically elected representatives gained real power. Although the elections were not entirely democratic, they paved the way for creation of Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s cabinet and a peaceful transition to democracy in Poland and elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe, which was confirmed after the Polish parliamentary elections of 1991.


In May and August 1988 massive waves of workers’ strikes broke out in the Polish People’s Republic. The strikes, as well as street demonstrations, continued throughout spring and summer, ending in early September 1988. These actions shook the communist regime of the country to such an extent, that it was forced to begin talking about recognising Solidarity (Polish: Solidarność) an “unofficial” labor union that subsequently grew into a political movement. As a result, later that year, the regime decided to negotiate with the opposition, which opened way for the 1989 Round Table Agreement. The second, much bigger wave of strikes (August 1988) surprised both the government, and top leaders of Solidarity, who were not expecting actions of such intensity. These strikes were mostly organized by local activists, who had no idea that their leaders from Warsaw had already started secret negotiations with the communists.

An agreement was reached by the communist Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR) and the Solidarity movement during the Round Table negotiations. The final agreement was signed on 4 April 1989, ending communist rule in Poland. As a result, real political power was to be vested in a newly created bicameral legislature (Sejm, with recreated Senate), and it also recreated the office of president who would be the chief executive. Solidarity became a legitimate and legal political party: On 7 April 1989 the existing parliament changed the election law and changed the constitution (through the April Novelization), and on 17 April, the Supreme Court of Poland reregistered Solidarity. Soon after the agreement was signed, Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa travelled to Rome, to be received by the Polish Pope John Paul II.

Perhaps the most important decision reached during the Round Table talks was to allow for partially free elections to be held in Poland. (A fully free election was promised “in four years”). All seats to the newly recreated Senate of Poland were to be elected democratically, as were 161 seats (35 percent of the total) in Sejm. The remaining 65% of the seats were reserved for the PZPR and its satellite parties (United People’s Party (ZSL), Alliance of Democrats (SD), and communist-aligned Catholic parties). In addition, all 35 seats elected via the country-wide list were reserved for the PZPR’s candidates provided they gained a certain quota of support. This was to ensure that the most notable leaders of the Party were elected.

The outcome of the election was largely unpredictable, pre-electoral opinion polls were inconclusive. After all, Poland had not had a truly fair election since the 1920s, so there was little precedent to go by. The last contested elections were those of 1947, in the midst of communist-orchestrated violent oppression and electoral fraud. This time, there would be open and relatively fair competition for many seats, both between communist and Solidarity candidates, and in some cases, between various communist candidates. While censorship was still in force, the opposition was allowed to campaign much more freely than before, with a new newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, and reactivation of Tygodnik Solidarność. Solidarity was also given access to televised media, being allocated 23% of electoral time on Polish Television. There were also no restrictions on financial support.

It was clear that the Communists were unpopular, but there were no hard numbers as to how low support for them would actually fall. A rather flawed survey carried in April, days after the Round Table Agreement was signed, suggested that over 60% of the surveyed wanted Solidarity to cooperate with the government

Another survey a week later, about the Senate elections, showed that 48% of the surveyed supported the opposition, 14% the communist government, and 38% were undecided. In such a situation, both sides faced another unfamiliar aspect – the electoral campaign. The communists knew they were guaranteed 65% of the seats, and expected a difficult but winnable contest; in fact they were concerned about a possibility of “winning too much” – they desired some opposition, which would serve to legitimize their government on the internal and international levels. The communist government still had control over most major media outlets and employed sports and television celebrities as candidates, as well as successful local personalities and businesspeople. Some members of the opposition were worried that such tactics would gain enough votes from the less educated segment of the population to give the communists the legitimacy that they craved. Only a few days before June 4 the party Central Committee was discussing the possible reaction of the Western world should Solidarity not win a single seat. At the same time the Solidarity leaders were trying to prepare some set of rules for the non-party MPs in a communist-dominated parliament, as it was expected that the party would win not more than 20 seats. Solidarity was also complaining that the way electoral districts were drawn was not favourable towards it.

Source: Wikipedia

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