Enabling Environments for Civic Movements and the Dynamics of Democratic Transition - Poland

Period of democratic transition: 1989–1990
Pro-democracy civic movement: present

Poland enjoyed a window of independence from 1918 to 1939 but was invaded by Germany and the Soviet Union at the opening of World War II and then forced into the Communist sphere at the end of the war. Polish citizens endured decades of Soviet domination and mismanagement of the economy, which created waves of strikes and government violence. Martial law was declared in 1981 in an attempt to repress Solidarity, the free national trade union that was established the same year.

The glasnost and perestroika that USSR president Mikhail Gorbachev promoted led, in the late 1980s, to a resurgence of Solidarity as well as the release of political prisoners. Economic hardships inspired a new generation of workers in 1988 to strike and to support Solidarity, which had functioned underground since 1981. While operating clandestinely, the union movement and related civic-political resistance established an underground press, an alternative set of cultural institutions, strike funds, and networks of mutual support. Waves of strikes and protests in the end forced the Communist authorities to the bargaining table and led to a comprehensive settlement that relegalized the union movement and opened the door to its eventual electoral victory. Solidarity candidates won 99 out of 100 contested seats (representing 36 percent of Parliament) in June 1989 parliamentary elections and given their overwhelming show of support were asked to form a government. On December 9, 1990, Solidarity leader Lech Walesa was elected president in a competitive, multicandidate election. The country's first fully contested legislative elections were held in 1993.

Since the election of Lech Walesa, Poland has made good progress in a democratic government, with Solidarity and Communist candidates smoothly alternating power. Several presidential and parliamentary elections have all been found free and fair.

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