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Podcast: Poland 2001 (History Corner #7)

Leszek Miller, elected Prime Minister of Poland in 2001. Public domain.

In this month’s history, we look back twenty years to the 2001 parliamentary election in Poland. As the centre-right Solidarity Electoral Alliance government dramatically collapsed and the centre-left Democratic Left Alliance-Labour Union swept to power, the arrival of new parties would set the stage for the development of a new party system.

Transcript:

Hello and welcome to another volume of the Europe Elects History Corner.  After another short hiatus, we are back to look at a much more recent election than has been covered in the past few History Corners: the Polish parliamentary election of 2001, just over twenty years ago. 

As ever, this election was picked by our Patrons on Patreon.  To join them in supporting Europe Elects’ work and to have a say in future History Corner episodes, in addition to other perks, go to patreon.com/europeelects. 

September, 2001.  The first orca conceived through artificial insemination was born in San Diego; Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko won re-election for the first time in less than democratic conditions; Marcos Perez Jimenez, the military leader of Venezuela between 1950 and 1958, died at the age of 87; and, of course, the 9/11 terror attacks took place in the United States, an event that would define not only this month but much of the coming decade.  And on 23 October 2001, Polish voters went to the polls to elect their fourth national parliament, the Sejm[MN1] , since the fall of communism. 

From the last parliamentary election in 1997, Poland had been led by Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek of the centre-right Solidarity Electoral Action coalition, or AWS, founded in 1996 with links to the influential, though now declining, Solidarity trade union.  Falling short of a majority with what was then the best result for any individual list in Poland’s Third Republic, Solidarity Electoral Action formed a coalition with the liberal Freedom Union.  

However, by 2001, Solidarity Electoral Action’s fortunes had begun to wane.  The economic situation had worsened over its period of government, as unemployment rose to reach 16% and surveys indicated consumer confidence had fallen to an eight-year low.  In 2000, the Freedom Union had quit the government in protest at the lack of progress on the coalition’s policy programme, forcing Buzek to form a minority government for the remainder of the term.  Two months later, three ministers were forced to resign over corruption charges. 

As a result of this tumultuous period in government, the 2000 presidential election saw the Solidarity Electoral Action candidate finish in an embarrassing third place as the incumbent President, Aleksander Kwasniewski[MN2] , won a landslide victory in the first round with the backing of the centre-left Democratic Left Alliance, SLD.  By the beginning of 2001, Solidarity Electoral Action had fallen in polls to the low teens, occasionally polling in single digits, including a January Demoskop poll that placed the coalition at just 8%, a huge drop from the 34% it achieved in the previous election.  The Solidarity trade union even withdrew its support from its political wing, further confirming the alliance’s collapsing position in Polish society. 

The Solidarity Electoral Action alliance itself had faced splinters over these years.  Entry into NATO in 1999 and moves towards accession into the European Union had triggered splits, leaving the alliance down to just three parties by 2001, down from 30 in 1996. However, Buzek was the First Prime Minister since the fall of communism to last a full, four-year term, despite this instability – a feat not matched again until Donald Tusk’s premiership a decade later. 

To make matters worse, opposition forces had begun coalescing into more united forces.  Prior to the turn of the century, Poland had seemed to be heading towards a stable four-party system consisting of Solidarity Electoral Action, Freedom Union, the centre-left Democratic Left Alliance and the agrarian Polish People’s Party, the latter two descended from ruling parties in the communist era.  However, this party system of the early Third Republic would be turned on its head between the years 2000 and 2001. 

On the centre-left, the Democratic Left Alliance, buoyed by its success in the presidential election, formed an alliance with the Labour Union.  Since the last election, the Democratic Left Party had undergone a process of self-renewal, merging from an alliance into a single unitary party while seeking to distance itself from its past associations with the communist era. The centre-left alliance also received support from the All-Polish Trade Union Alliance.  At the beginning of the year, the alliance’s combined share in voting intention polls regularly sat above 40%, occasionally even surpassing 50%, compared to a combined vote share of 32% in 1997.   The Democratic Left Alliance had previously participated in government between 1993 and 1997, providing two Prime Ministers.  

On the right, two parties had recently been formed that would form the bedrock of Poland’s party system in the subsequent decades.  In January 2001, the centre-right Civic Platform was founded as a home for disaffected members of Solidarity Electoral Action and Freedom Union, seeking to promote liberal, Christian democratic and pro-European policies.  Further to the right, five months later the right-wing Law and Justice party was founded as a breakaway from Solidarity Electoral Action centred around the Kaczyński brothers, and in particular the popular justice minister Lech Kaczyński.  

Various other parties also contested the election.  The agrarian Polish People’s Party, led by former Agriculture Minister Jaroslaw Kalinowski, had been represented in the Sejm since 1991 and, with the Democratic Left Alliance, had formed a government from between 1993 until losing ground in the 1997 election.  The far-right League of Polish Families was a third party to be formed in 2001, bringing together the ideologies of nationalism, conservatism and political Catholicism.   Finally, the dramatically-named Self Defence of the Republic of Poland, a populist agrarian party with a social conservative orientation, also saw growing support from the 0.1% it had won in 1997.  

As the election campaign began, Prime Minister Buzek led Solidarity Electoral Action into an increasingly doomed bid for re-election, with its polling numbers ranging in the final month from 9% all the way down to 4%.  As an alliance, Solidarity Electoral Action would need to win 8% even to remain in Parliament.  Buzek’s main rival and clear front-runner in the polls, the Democratic Left Alliance-Labour Union alliance, was led into the election by former communist official and more recently Labour Minister, Leszek Miller, who had very much dominated attempts to assembly a united left-wing alliance in opposition to Solidarity Electoral Action. 

It’s also worth noting that the electoral system for the 2001 election had been subtly changed from previous elections.  It remained a proportional list system with a threshold of 5% for parties and 8% for alliances, but the method of calculation was switched from d’Hondt to Sainte-Lague, which benefits smaller parties over large ones.  A top-up list for parties over 7% of the vote was also abolished, and the number of constituencies reduced from 52 to 36.  As the new electoral law was passed merely months before the vote, this could cynically be seen as an attempt to limit the Democratic Left Alliance’s surge – and indeed, the electoral system would switch back to d’Hondt in 2002. 

The campaign itself has been widely described as ‘dull,’ ‘gloomy’ and ‘boring,’ many voters viewing victory for the Democratic Left Alliance-Labour Union as a foregone conclusion and much of the campaign taking place during the summer holiday months.  Even the centre-left alliance campaigned on the message, ‘Let’s Return to Normality, Win the Future,’ trying to set itself up in opposition to the unpopular government. 

The government’s record – and generally, its perceived failures – dominated campaign messaging.  The issues of unemployment, taxation policy and membership of the European Union were the most prominent issues debated.  Examining opinion polls, the campaign had a partial effect on voting intention, as the Democratic Left Alliance-Labour Union alliance began to lose ground following the announcement of plans for austerity measures if the alliance gained power.  The last-minute intervention by the Catholic Church, which urged voters to avoid voting for a party ‘linked with an ideological continuity with the community party,’ may also have harmed the centre-left alliance. 

There also appeared to be a late swing towards forces of right-wing populism, namely the League of Polish Families and Self Defence of the Polish Republic.  This slip in support prompted President Kwasniewski to make a last-minute appeal in favour of his former party.  The 9/11 attacks also had a significant impact on the conduct of the campaign, most parties suspending their rallies and campaign advertisements in the final weeks as a result.  It is unsurprising that turnout in the election ultimately fell to 46.3%, down slightly from 1997. 

The election result indeed produced a crushing result for Jerzy Busek’s hopes of remaining in office.  Solidarity Electoral Action fell to 5.6% of the vote, just one sixth of its 1997 vote share.  Falling below the 8% electoral threshold for alliances, Solidarity Electoral Action subsequently lost all of its seats in the Sejm.  Buzek’s erstwhile coalition partner, the Freedom Union, fell to 3.1%, also losing all of its seats.  The governing alliances elected in 1997 had thus been reduced to zero representation in the Sejm, a remarkable reversal in fortunes which one political scientist has referred to as an ‘unexpected political earthquake.’ 

As expected, voters delivered an overwhelming victory to Democratic Left Alliance-Labour Union, who secured 41% of the vote and 216 of the Sejm’s 460 seats.  This marked an underperformance compared to recent polling – as every poll in the last month of the campaign had the alliance between 43 and 52% – and fell short of the overall majority that seemed within their grasp prior to the vote.  Nevertheless, the centre-left alliance had won a commanding victory, finishing with over three times the number of seats as the second-placed follow-up.  Had the election been held under the previous electoral law, the alliance would likely have gained the majority.

This position went to the newly-formed Civic Platform, which broke through into Poland’s electoral landscape with 12.7% of the vote and 65 seats.  The next two largest parties saw similar breakthroughs.  The previously-unrepresented Self-Defence of the Republic of Poland won 10.2% and 53 seats, while Law and Justice secured 9.5% of the vote and 44 seats in its first electoral competition.  The League of Polish Families would be the fourth party to enter parliament for the first time, having successfully harnessed Poland’s ‘religious right’ voting bloc, winning 7.9% and 38 seats.  The Polish People’s Party also managed to slightly recover from its collapse in support in 1997, recovering to 9% of the vote and 42 seats.

Finally, the German Minority Electoral Committee, an organisation intended to, as the name suggests, represent Poland’s German minority, held onto its two seats with a vote share of 0.4% nationally.  As a grouping representing minority interests, the Germany Minority Electoral Committee was and is exempt from the national electoral threshold.

As a result of this major swing away from the governing parties and their utter electoral obliteration, over half the MPs elected to the Sejm lacked any prior parliamentary experience, helping to break any continuity in legislative experience that had built up through the 1990s.

With this scale of lead in the popular vote, a 28 point lead over the nearest competitor, the Democratic Left Alliance-Labour Union unsurprisingly won a plurality in almost all electoral districts across Poland.  It gained particularly strong support in western and northern Poland, along the ‘ghost border’ that once demarcated the German and Russian empires – if this is a new trend for you I’d highly recommend searching the term ‘ghost border’ online; it is incredibly eerie how close Polish election results sometimes track onto this border that hasn’t existed in over a century.

The Polish People’s Party was able to win pockets of support in parts of the rural east, while Civic Platform won a handful of districts around Gdansk and in the south.  According to the exit poll, the centre-left alliance also won a plurality amongst all socio-economic groups with the exception of farmers, who voted primarily for the Polish People’s Party and Self-Defence.

This result provided Leszek Miller with ample choice for forming a government, as any one of the five other parties and alliances which won representation in the Sejm would provide enough seats to form a majority coalition.  Ultimately, Miller decided to form a government with the Polish People’s Party, recreating the governing coalition that had ruled Poland from 1993 to 1997 – though this time with the centre-left in a much more dominant position. 

Having collapsed in such a spectacular manner, neither of the two former governing parties would survive in the long term.  Solidarity Electoral Action was dissolved almost immediately after the results were confirmed.  The Freedom Union would last a bit longer, losing almost all of its seats in the following year’s regional assembly elections but successfully winning four European Parliament seats in 2004, before ultimately merging into the centrist Democratic Party ahead of the 2005 election, again failing to enter Parliament.

Leszek Miller would govern as Prime Minister for three years.  His most significant achievement in these years was to bring Poland into the European Union in 2004.  His government would also implement a range of unpopular public spending cuts and, even more controversially, allow the United States to operate a secret prison on Polish soil, preceding Poland’s participation in the 2003 US-led Invasion of Iraq.  Miller would resign in 2004, just one day after Poland’s EU accession, due to falling popularity and a loss of support among MPs.  The Democratic Left Alliance would suffer an enormous loss of support in the 2005 election – if not quite as dramatically as the fate that befell Solidarity Electoral Action in 2001 – and has never since participated in government.

Poland’s 2001 parliamentary election was historic in a number of respects.  It was the largest landslide for a centre-left alliance in Polish electoral history, even if its subsequent governing agenda would leave many on the left alienated and hostile.  It was also the last occasion to date that the centre-left in Poland had a major presence in a parliamentary election, as the alliance failed to maintain its popularity over four years in government.  The election also provided a breakthrough for several nationalist, conservative and right-wing populist parties: newcomers Law and Justice and the League of Polish Families entered the Sejm soon after their creation, alongside the nine-year-old Self Defence of the Republic of Poland.   These three parties won just over a quarter of the seats between them and after the 2005 election would go on to form a short-lived government together. 

The 2001 election had perhaps most significance as laying the foundations for the party system that would persist in Polish politics throughout the early 21st century and remains in place today.  Two parties founded in the months before the election, Civil Platform and Law and Justice, would from 2005 lead every subsequent Polish government and at times begin to resemble a two-party system.  Most notably today, from its modest electoral debut in 2001 with 9.5% of the vote, Law and Justice would win a shock majority just 14 years later, and remains in power to this day.

Sources:

Benoit, Kenneth & Hayden, Jacqueline, ‘Institutional Change and Persistence: The Evolution of Poland’s Electoral System, 1989-2001,’ The Journal of Politics 66.2 (May 2004), pp. 396-427.

Millard, F., ‘The Parliamentary Elections in Poland, September 2001,’ Electoral Studies 22.2 (June 2003), pp. 367-74.

Szczerbiak, Aleks, ‘Poland’s Unexpected Political Earthquake: The September 2001 Parliamentary Election,’ The Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics 18.3 (2002), pp. 41-76.

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