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Discover Poland – 25 years of freedom

It had no right to happen. Twenty-five years ago, even the best of optimists did not believe in the fall of Communism. Poles were weary and dismayed: by Martial Law, by the rationing of meat and sugar, and by the fruitless attempts to reform the country. They wanted to live like people in Western Europe. The strikes of August 1988 were a manifestation of social discontent and at the same time a warning to those in power that a new threat was about to erupt.

But the authorities were tired by the futility of their own actions; they were aware that without a popular mandate they could not reform the economy and ensure peace for the nation. It was in this climate that representatives of Solidarity, independent experts, and members of the political establishment entered into talks at the Round Table. The very fact that members of these two opposing sides of the conflict shook hands and entered into dialogue was symbolic. For the rest of the world, the Polish Round Table became a model for reaching an agreement across political lines – a method for resolving conflicts by peaceful means, without the use of violence. During these talks a decision was made to hold parliamentary elections, which subsequently took place on 4 June 1989.

These were the first partially free elections in the history of Poland after World War II. The Communist authorities ensured that at least 65 percent of seats in the Sejm were reserved for the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR) and its satellite parties. The remaining seats in the Sejm (35 percent) were intended for nonpartisan candidates. They competed for these seats and all seats to the Senate in a democratic manner. It might have seemed that Solidarity had no chance against the regime, which was armed with the media. The regime, however, was full of pride and did not account for the determination of the people gathered around the Citizens’ Committee. The well-worn clichés constantly repeated in the news could not compete with the fresh voice of the opposition’s political campaign. The worn faces of the establishment looked hollow compared to their opponents standing next to the victorious Lech Wałęsa.

The elections ended in a decisive victory for the opposition. The candidates of Solidarity won all of the 161 seats intended for nonpartisan Members of Parliament and 99 percent of the seats in the Senate. This meant a bitter loss for the Communist authorities of the People’s Republic of Poland. The defeat of almost all the candidates from the so-called national list of the ruling party, which included key leaders of the establishment, was the most devastating blow. As a result of the June elections, Poland became the first country of the Eastern Bloc in which the members of the opposition gained a real influence on the exercise of power. The elections of June 4th should be deemed a turning point for the process of political transition in Poland, since they sparked a sudden and decisive acceleration of political transformations.

Soon afterwards, Tadeusz Mazowiecki became the first non-Communist head of government since the end of World War II. The words he said during his opening speech shortly after he fainted at the podium went down in history: “I have reached the same state as the Polish economy.” But the economic conditions began to undergo slow changes. The revolution, which most importantly was bloodless, could not be stopped once it had started. The Polish people could finally form political parties. Censorship was abolished. The political changes were accompanied by the economic ones introduced by Leszek Balcerowicz. On 17 September 1993, the last troops of the Russian Federation left Poland. We became a full member of NATO in 1999 and in 2004 – of the European Union. Our dreams of living in a free country were finally fulfilled. On 4 June 1989, the Polish people, tired of the authoritarian regime, initiated political transformations which changed the face of Europe in a matter of months. The casting of votes into the ballot box at the beginning of June in Białystok, Kalisz and Wrocław led to the opening of borders in Hungary in the summer and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in the autumn. The victory of the Solidarity Citizens’ Committee, the victory of Poles, opened the road to freedom, the unification of Europe, and the lifting of the Iron Curtain.

Marcin Zaremba, PhD
University of Warsaw