Political Rights: 1
Civil Liberties: 1
Status: Free
Population: 38,200,000
GNI/Capita: $5,280
Life Expectancy: 75
Religious Groups: Roman Catholic (89.8 percent) Eastern Orthodox (1.3 percent), Protestant (0.3 percent), other (8.6 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Polish (96.7 percent), German (0.4 percent)
Capital: Warsaw


In 2005, Poland's outgoing government was soundly defeated in elections, and the Law and Justice (PiS) party won both the parliamentary and presidential elections. Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz became prime minister, and Lech Kaczynski was elected president.

From the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries, Poland and Lithuania maintained a powerful state that Prussia, Austria, and Russia destroyed in three successive partitions. Poland enjoyed a window of independence from 1918 to 1939 but was invaded by Germany and the Soviet Union during World War II and forced into the Communist sphere at the end of the war. Polish citizens endured decades of Soviet rule until 1989, the year Lech Walesa and the Solidarity trade union movement forced the government to accept democratic reforms.

Fundamental democratic and free market-oriented reforms were introduced during the 1989-1991 period. Later changes were stimulated by a need to adjust the Polish legal system to European Union (EU) requirements. Political parties with a background in the Solidarity movement were in power from 1989 to 1993 (several coalitions) and from 1997 to 2001 (Solidarity Election Action, or AWS). In 1995, former Communist Alexander Kwasniewski replaced Solidarity's Walesa, the previous president, and was subsequently reelected by a large margin of votes in 2000.

In September 2001, voters handed the government of Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek a decisive defeat in parliamentary elections. Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) leader Leszek Miller became the new prime minister. In elections for the Sejm (lower house of parliament), a coalition of the center-left SLD and the Union of Labor (UP) took 216 seats out of 460 but failed to win a majority. The two parties formed a government with the leftist Polish Peasant Party (PSL), which had won 42 seats. Civic Platform (PO), a new centrist party, finished second with 65 seats. The following parties divided the remaining seats: the leftist-popular, agrarian Self-Defense Party (Samoobrona), 53 seats; the center-right PiS, 44; the right-wing League of Polish Families (LPR), 38; and the German minority, 2. The Solidarity movement, now a looser coalition known as the "Coalition Electoral Action Solidarity of the Right," and the Freedom Union (UW) failed to secure a single seat.

On May 1, 2004, Poland joined the EU, along with nine other, mostly post-Communist countries. In subsequent negotiations over a new draft constitution for the EU, Poland fought unsuccessfully for the disproportionate voting clout it was given in the Treaty of Nice. Poland was therefore skeptical of the constitution and may have defeated it in a referendum, but France and the Netherlands did so first, in May and June 2005, effectively killing the constitution.

In March 2004, Miller announced that he would resign as prime minister, effective in May. His SLD-led government's popularity suffered from the effects of a weak economy, high unemployment, and high budget deficits, and was also dogged by allegations of corruption. The final blow was the defection of a group of SLD members of parliament, who announced their intention to form a new party, the Social Democratic Party of Poland. Miller was replaced by the SLD's Marek Belka, who served as a caretaker until elections in 2005. The SLD's weakness was confirmed by a particularly sound drubbing in the European Parliament elections in June 2004.

In the September 2005 legislative elections, PiS won a stunning victory by increasing its seat total from 44 to 152, while the SLD fell from 216 seats to just 56. The second-best-performing party was the PO, winning 133 seats. PiS is led by twin brothers, Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Jaroslaw was originally expected to be the party's choice for prime minister, but when it appeared that Lech might win the presidency – and that Poles might be skeptical of having twin brothers in the country's two most powerful jobs – Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz became prime minister-designate instead. In October's presidential election, Lech Kaczynski won a surprise victory over the PO's Donald Tusk, with 54 percent of the vote. Shortly afterward, after failing to reach a coalition accord with the PO, PiS formed a minority government under Marcinkiewicz, with the support of some of the smaller right-wing parties.

Over the past several years, Poland has sought to carve out a twenty-first century leadership position for itself in Europe. This attempt is most clearly demonstrated by the prominent role of Polish troops in the stabilization of Iraq following the ouster of Saddam Hussein's regime by U.S.-led forces. However, in November 2005, Poland was the subject of unwelcome attention when it was accused by Human Rights Watch of cooperating with the American CIA in running a secret prison for detainees in the war on terrorism. Human Rights Watch's accusations were based on the flight records of a plane believed to be used by the CIA to transport prisoners. Poland has denied hosting any such "black site."

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Citizens of Poland can change their government democratically. Voters elect the president and members of the bicameral parliament, which consists of the Sejm and the Senate. The president's appointment of the prime minister is subject to confirmation by the Sejm, whose 460 members serve a four-year term. The prime minister is chiefly responsible for most government policy, but the president has an important role, especially in foreign policy. The 100-member Senate, also elected for a four-year term, can delay legislation but has few other powers.

The political party system is fragmented. For years, the largest and most coherent groups were the AWS and SLD; however, the former has disappeared from parliament, and the latter was reduced to a fraction of its former power in the 2005 election. PiS and the PO have become the two most important parties, while parties such as Samoobrona and the LPR are small but vocal.

In 2003, the SLD-led government faced allegations that party figures were linked to organized crime and corruption. The "Rywin affair," which involves allegations that film producer Lew Rywin sought a bribe from a major newspaper publisher in return for using his political connections to influence the shape of the draft media law, helped bring down Prime Minister Leszek Miller in 2004. New allegations of corruption surfaced in 2004 involving an alleged bribe by a Russian oil company to a Polish government minister for the sale of a Polish refinery to the Russian company.

Poland's membership in the EU required it to meet the EU's "Copenhagen criteria," including "stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities." In its final report on Poland's progress, issued in 2003, the EU Commission said, "Poland has reached a high level of alignment with the acquis [the body of EU laws] in most policy areas." The report did criticize slow progress on corruption, however. Poland was ranked 70 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The 1997 constitution guarantees freedom of expression and forbids censorship. However, the country's libel law treats slander as a criminal offense, and journalists oppose the growing number of related lawsuits. Infringements on media freedom include gag orders and arbitrary judicial decisions concerning investigations of individuals affiliated with parties in power. The law requires the media to maintain "respect for Christian values." Internet access is unrestricted.

The state respects freedom of religion and does not require religious groups to register. However, registered religious groups enjoy a reduced tax burden. In 2003, the Roman Catholic Church for the first time met with serious accusations of sexual impropriety by clerics. The Church responded with investigations and dismissals, including that of a bishop.

Academic freedom is generally respected, though a law on the books threatens anyone who "publicly insults or humiliates a constitutional institution" with a fine or up to two years' imprisonment.

Polish citizens can petition the government, assemble freely, organize professional and other associations, and engage in collective bargaining. Public demonstrations require permits from local authorities. Civil society in Poland was seen as hastening the downfall of the Communist regime and remains active. Since the 1980s, when shipyard workers in Gdansk launched a national strike and formed the Solidarity labor union, Poland has had a robust labor movement. Although Solidarity's political strength has waned in recent years, labor groups remain active and influential.

Poland has an independent judiciary, but courts are notorious for delays in administering cases. In 1989, the country began a reform process that has sought to increase the efficiency and professionalism of the judiciary. In its 2002 accession report, the European Commission acknowledged "steady progress" and "improved efficiency" in this process, but it noted that Poland should continue efforts to increase public access to justice, address public perceptions of corruption within the judiciary, and improve the treatment of detainees by the police. State prosecutors have proceeded slowly on investigations into graft and corruption, contributing to concerns that they are subject to considerable political pressure. Prison conditions are fairly poor by European standards.

Ethnic minorities generally enjoy generous protections and rights provided under Polish law, including funding for bilingual education and publications and privileged representation in parliament; they are not subject to a minimum vote threshold of 5 percent to achieve representation. Poland's once-vibrant Jewish community was reduced to a tiny minority by the Holocaust during World War II and subsequent emigration. Poland's other minority groups are small, but some, particularly the 30,000 Roma, suffer discrimination in employment and housing, racially motivated insults and (infrequently) attacks.

Women have made inroads in the professional sphere and are employed in a wide variety of occupations. A number of women hold high positions in government and the private sector, and the first nominee by Poland to the European Commission was a woman, Danuta Huebner. However, domestic violence against women is a problem in Poland. Abortion is illegal unless the health of the mother is at risk, the pregnancy results from rape or incest, or the fetus is irreparably damaged, and the law is strictly enforced. As in several other formerly Communist countries, trafficking in women and girls for the purposes of prostitution remains a problem.

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