Central Europe Review The International OSI Policy Fellowships (IPF) program
Vol 2, No 27
10 July 2000
front page 
sponsor us 
jobs at CER 
CER Direct 
e-mail us 
year 2000 
year 1999 
by subject 
by author 
music shop 
video store 


Polish Coalition Five Percent Solution
Andrew Cave

The recent crisis in Poland's centre-right government has been temporarily resolved, but now that its coalition partners, the Freedom Union, have resigned, will the remaining parties be able to find agreement amongst themselves? Instability in Poland's political system has consistently emanated from the political right.

The current minority government is almost certainly heading for electoral defeat, but will defeat decimate the right as it did in 1993, or is there a glimmer of hope flickering for the current administration?

Failure to perform

The party system in Poland, if it can be referred to as such, [1] closely resembles the French party system. There are too many parties, their policy programmes are vague or non-existent and they fail to reflect the interests of society. In other words, political parties in Poland do not perform the normal functions expected of parties in a mature democracy.

In recent years, the number of parties has been cut, on the surface at least, by the introduction of the five percent threshold. However, subsequent political conglomerations hide the fact that there is still a myriad of small political parties jockeying for position and, whilst the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) has addressed this problem with considerable success, Poland’s political right remains fractured and divided.

Factors contributing to this state of affairs can be grouped into three categories: social, organisational and historical.

Cross-cutting beliefs

As in France, the divisions in Polish society cut across each other, carving up otherwise homogenous groups according to clerical and anti-clerical beliefs, post-Communist and post-Solidarity backgrounds and according to liberal and social-utopian views.

The political significance attached to religion, experiences under Communism and, increasingly, alienation from the rest of society, makes the formation of broad based political parties almost impossible.

For this reason, Polish politicians remain as vague as possible on policy. In its opening declaration, Solidarity Election Action (AWS) states its guiding principles to be "truth, justice and solidarity between people."[2] AWS representative Bogumil Nowicki also sighted "national feeling and the spirit of Christianity" as being the party's uniting ideology. [3]

Vague political programmes are also a result of weak party structures. In many cases, political parties in Poland are little more than electoral pacts that dissolve once an election has been fought.

Parties are poorly funded and suffer from low membership. Despite having 60 deputies in the Sejm, the Freedom Union (UW) has a mere 20,000 members and can only finance local offices by retaining ten percent of each of its employees' wages.

A survey found that, in many cases, local branch offices of political parties simply did not exist and, where in existence, they were under staffed and lacked basic equipment such as telephones. [4] These weak internal structures lead to poor party discipline and make the Polish political scene transitory in nature.

Hindered by history

Poland's contemporary parties stem from élite formations that grew up during the Communist-era and, despite the changing agenda and political environment, all but a few can still be defined by these historical roots. In a perverse twist of fate, the moral victors after 1989, Solidarity and the political right, have been hindered by their history to a far greater extent than the former Communists.

Solidarity was the ultimate catch-all party (or, more correctly, "movement"). In opposition, it united a diverse range of interests whom in any other situation would have been irreconcilable, as they subsequently became when left without a common enemy.

In the first fully free elections of 1991, the Solidarity movement fragmented into dozens of smaller parties, reflecting the whole gamut of the political spectrum. Between 1991 and 1993, post-Solidarity parties lurched from one shaky coalition to another with four different prime ministers and three separate administrations, all brought down by infighting. Electoral defeat in 1993 all but eliminated post-Solidarity parties from parliament.

Parties within parties

In 1996, Solidarity Election Action (AWS) was born. Created by the leader of the Solidarity trade union, Marian Krzaklewski, AWS is an alliance of more than thirty parties gathered together around the political arm of the Solidarity trade union, Social Movement-Solidarity Election Action (RS).

AWS’s existence also depends on the Christian National Union (ZChN), a right-wing Catholic party, and the Conservative Peasants Party (SKL), an amalgamation of conservative and liberal parties placed on the centre-right. In effect, these are parties within a party, replicating traditional divisions and weaknesses rather than resolving them.

There is little doubt that the present centre-right government will collapse, sooner or later, and that it will be replaced by a centre-left SLD government, possibly in coalition with the Freedom Union. But which parties on the right will be left standing after the next election?

Who will be left standing?

RS may be the biggest grouping within AWS, but it is based on the fragile foundations of the Solidarity trade union. It serves the interests of the trade union, and was born more out of a desire to capture power than to represent a coherent set of beliefs. Its founding declaration states its goal to be to "recreate a broad electoral block, which will have a chance to win the next Parliamentary elections." [5]

As the leader of ZChN points out, "constructing a future on electoral opportunism, and not on solid ideas, will lead to failure." [6] While RS struggles to find an identity independent of its sponsor, other forces within AWS are clear about their identity and motives.

In February 1999, the conservative element of AWS consolidated under the Conservative Peasants Party (SKL). This has been portrayed by the AWS leadership as a move towards a stronger party structure, but there are no signs that SKL wishes to give up its own identity for a wider AWS identity. SKL has continued to consolidate and has gained strength from the strong leadership of Jan Rokita. ZChN has also attempted to consolidate its position, but remains wedded to its core support from radical Catholics.

Prime minister Jerzy Bużek's minority government will struggle on until the budget early next year, but divisions are likely to open up before then between the ruling centre-right parties. SKL may well assume the role, previously played by Freedom Union, of advocating liberal economic policies which will put SKL in direct opposition to its partners with slower approaches to reform.

Will SKL stabilise the right?

Viewed in this light, the odds of SKL surviving seem slim, but SKL is the party most likely to survive the impending electoral defeat.

SKL cannot call on mass trade union support, but in many ways this is an advantage, giving it the scope and motivation to reach out to a broader range of the electorate. SKL's political programme advocates liberal economic reforms but also maintains a strong link with Poland's cultural and religious values.

ZChN's political programme taps into Catholic extremism and is simply too radical to garner widespread support, whilst RS lacks clear political direction and has no organisational structure beyond the Solidarity trade union – and there is no guarantee that the trade union will continue to want a political link of this kind after the next election.

All the signs suggest that the future of Poland's centre-right lies with the Conservative Peasants Party. SKL will have to develop its organisation, improve its campaigning skills and shed its "małopolska mindset," which makes it appear too parochial.

But if it can negotiate these hurdles, SKL will go a long way to stabilising the centre-right and Poland's political system as a whole.

Andrew Cave, 10 July 2000

This article is taken from a pamphlet recently published by the Action Centre for Europe Limited, "Enlargement – Poland and the EU."

Moving on:


1.Pridham and Lewis refrain from referring to the situation in Polish politics as a 'party system', believing instead that it has an emerging system, the nature of which has still to be defined. G Pridham and P Lewis in Leslie Holmes, "Towards a stabilization of party systems in the post-Communist countries," European Review, 6(2), 1998, pp 223-248

2.Quoted in: Solidarnosc, Tygodnik Malopolska

3.Interview with Bogumil Nowicki, AWS member, Vice Speaker of Krakow's Self Government, Chairman of the Post Office Union, 11 June 1999

4.Miroslawa Granowska, "Political Parties: Social Representatives or Agent of Change?," Polish Sociological Review, 116, 1996

5.Quoted in: Solidarnosc, Tygodnik Malopolska

6.Gazeta Wyborcza, 18 January 1999



Baltic Focus:
Mel Huang

Prekevičius & Clark
Lithuania's Looming Elections

Aet Annist
Estonia: Progress without Protest

Mel Huang
Military Brass Shuffling in Estonia

Artūras Račas
Calvin Klein and Communism

Mel Huang
Lithuania: A bananos respublika?

Teri Schultz
Reflections on a Revolution

Meelis Kitsing
Online in E-stonia

Arnis Gross
Latvia Logs On

Razeen Sally
Estonia and the EU

Hubert Jakobs
Livonian folk band Tulli Lum

Mel Huang
Baltic BeBop

Bernd Jahnke
Lithuanian Jazz

Artis Pabriks
Rīga's Revenge

Kurt Mortensen
Estonia's Art Music Scene

Mel Huang
Schizoid Lamb

Howard Jarvis
The Writings of Jurga Ivanauskaitė

President Vaira

Prime Minister
Mart Laar

Lithuanian Military Commander Jonas Kronkaitis

Oliver Craske
Lords Return Roma to Skinheads

Andrew Cave
Poland's Collapsing Right

Catherine Lovatt
Next Target: Montenegro

Sam Vaknin
Balkan Faith

Wolfgang Deckers
Germany in the Balkans

Culture Calendar: