Poland joined the EU in 2004, as part of the ten country expansion of that year.
Poland was historically one of Europe’s greatest states, the dominant component of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth which was Europe’s largest country at one point and one of its most progressive, with a system of checks and balances which contributed to the ideas of modern day democracy and federalism, and which provided ‘golden liberty’ to a full 10% of its population. The Commonwealth was, however, wiped off the map in the late 18th century, as it was partitioned between its enemies.
A deeply unstable Polish state emerged following WWI, and was partitioned once again in 1939 by Stalin’s Russia and Nazi Germany following the secret protocols of the Moltov-Ribbentrop Pact.
Poland experienced immense violence during WWII, 80% of Warsaw was destroyed. Around 5 million Poles died, including 3 million Polish Jews. Tens of thousands of members of the Polish elite were specifically executed, in an attempt to decapitate Polish civil society.
Post-war Poland came under Communist rule due to Soviet influence. The Polish Communists used a rigged referendum and election to legitimise themselves.
Communism was never a particularly good fit for Poland. A predominantly rural and highly Catholic nation, the Communists had won only 1.9% in the last more or less free elections in 1928. Communist rule was always unstable, and protests were relatively frequent. The elevation of the arch anti-communist Archbishop of Warsaw, Karol Jozef Wojtyla, to become Pope John Paul II made the Catholic Church an even more potent enemy of communism. Protests and strikes in Polish port cities led to the formation of the independent trade union, Solidarity, which came to be led by Lech Walesa.
An attempt to institute martial law failed and round-table negotiations between Solidarity and the government led to quasi-free elections in 1989. Solidarity secretly feared it would not win a single seat, instead it won almost every single seat up for election, missing just one seat in the Senate, and while the Communists had 65% of seats reserved in their favour, it was clear what the people wanted and the country transitioned into liberal democracy. Walesa became President, and in a symbolic move was inaugurated by a transition of state symbols from the Polish government-in-exile.
Polish democracy since 1991 was extraordinarily volatile and characterised by low turnouts and party fragmentation. Corruption has been a problem. No government was re-elected until 2011.
The Catholic Church remains very powerful and very conservative in Poland, and Poland is arguably one of the Europe’s most conservative countries. Anti-Russian and anti-German rhetoric is common from some sections of society. Mainstream political discourse is very nationalist when compared with a nation like Germany or the UK.
Recent years have seen the stabilisation of the political system behind the Civic Platform (PO), and Law and Justice (PiS) parties, however. Both are right-of-centre but the PO is more typical of a Western European conservative party, economically liberal, pro-European, secular and more moderate on social issues, whereas the PiS is heavily nationalistic, very socially conservative, Eurosceptic, and more economically interventionist.
These divisions are sharply geographic – PO wins the regions which were governed by Germany prior to 1918 and PiS wins the regions governed by Russia prior to that year. This reflects Polish history – the German regions of Poland were much more industrialised and are, to this day much more urban and affluent.
Poland avoided recession in 2008-9, seeing its economy grow by 1.6% in 2009, and grow by 4.1% and 4.5% in 2010 and 2011.
Growth has slowed in recent years due to a PO-led government which shies away from major reforms. Bureaucracy is problematic and some industries suffer labour shortages.
2010 saw a devastating air crash in which 96 members of the Polish elite died on their way to Russia to commerorate the Katyn massacre, a series of mass executions of Polish military officers by the Russian secret police in 1940. The dead included Polish President Lech Kaczynzski (the twin brother of former PM Jaroslaw Kaczynski), his wife, Maria, former President Kaczoworowski, the chief of the Polish military and several other senior officers, the President of the National Bank, the deputy foreign minister and senior civil servants, 18 members of parliament, senior members of the clergy and relatives of victims of the Katyn massacre.
As Eastern Europe’s richest state and the largest and most populace post-communist EU member state state Poland, sometimes adopts something of a leadership position amongst former Communist states. The country has been heavily involved in the mediations in the Ukraine.
Opinion on the EU is broadly polarised in Poland. While public opinion and all major parties are broadly supportive of EU membership there is a significant soft Eurosceptic opinion in Poland represented predominantly by PiS which rejects further integration with Europe. The PiS government of 2005-7 took hard-line positions with reference to the European Union. The country became known as the ‘Britain of the East’ in some quarters due to its awkwardness and in 2007 PM Kaczynski suggested it should get more voting weight in the EU as had it not been for Germany and WWII Poland would have a population that was a third larger, prompting outrage. The subsequent PO government is much more pro-European, however, and the pro-European PO Premier Donald Tusk is sometimes named as a potential President of the European Commission.
Poland will elect 51 MEPs, the same as it received after the Lisbon Treaty’s ratification redistributed seats.
Poland uses a open-list electoral system to elect its MEPs, whereby voters have some say over which candidates are chosen for each political party.
Poland is separated into 13 regions, and each party runs a separate list in each region. Parties are assigned seats in each region based on how much support they win in each region.
Turnout in Poland in 2009 was just 24.5%.
2009 Election Result
|Party||European Political Party||Votes||Seats|
|Civic Platform (PO)||European People’s Party||44.4%||25|
|Law and Justice (PiS)||European Conservatives and Reformists||27.4%||15|
|Democratic Alliance (SLD) & Labour Union (UP)||Socialists and Democrats||12.3%||7|
|Polish People’s Party||European People’s Party||7.0%||4|
Other parties notable in this election:
This election represents Law and Justice’s best chance to defeat the Civic Platform since its 2007 election defeat. Nonetheless Polish polls, which are notoriously unreliable, show a mixed picture. Either could win and the election is likely to be close. The Democratic Left Alliance looks to be in its ‘new normal’ of winning around 10% of the vote. The PSL is polling at around 5% and could be in danger of losing representation on these numbers. However, the PSL often outperforms polls on the day due to its highly loyal voters and low Polish turnouts. Europa Plus polls highly volatily, indicative of a disloyal support. It is unclear if it will win seats. Congress of the New Right has a good chance of winning seats, whereas United Poland looks like it has no chance of doing the same. Poland Together could gain seats, but probably won’t.
*Article amended as it previously referred to ‘Racist and homophobic rhetoric is present in mainstream discourse’ which was felt to be too strong. It has now been changed to ‘Mainstream political discourse is very nationalist when compared with a nation like Germany or the UK’.