Explainer: 550 years of Polish Parliamentarism

Poland celebrating its 550th anniversary of Parliamentarianism. Photo: PAP/Marcin Obara

The first Parliamentary assembly in Poland was held on 13 July 1468, a date which led to the formation of the oldest “two chamber” Parliament which was formed later that year.

The significance of the Anniversary

The long history of Polish Parliamentarism shows Poland began the move away from absolutist monarchy many centuries ago.

Its tradition is one of debate, even often fractious, rather than dicta by a monarch. That tradition was preserved even at times of partition, occupation and the attempts to impose authoritarian or totalitarian rule.

Poland has a long tradition of representative and constitutional forms of government. It was no surprise therefore how quickly Poland – when it regained its independence in 1918, the centenary celebrations of which are ongoing – adopted full universal suffrage and moved to a parliamentary form of government.

Nor was it particularly surprising that once the USSR weakened its grip on Poland in 1989, it rapidly moved away from communism and towards being a fully fledged democratic state.

When it all began: the beginnings of Parliamentary traditions in 1468

The Polish Parliament is one of the earliest legislatures in Europe. It originated from the local gatherings called by the feudal rulers of the Piast dynasty in their duchies in the 12th century.

The term “Sejm” – used to this day to refer to the lower house of Parliament – stems from old Slavic word, meaning “gathering,” and appeared after the unification of the Kingdom of Poland in the 14th and 15th centuries, when those assemblies started to represent people from all over the country.

The meeting in the town of Koło on 13 July 1468, was a precursor to the first general Assembly convened by King Kazimierz Jagiellończyk (Casimir Jagiellon) later that year. The King's actions were motivated by the need to pay the soldiers who fought against the Teutonic Knights in a war which ended in 1466.

At the meeting, the King's request was accepted and the final decision was postponed until the convening of the Sejm, which was set for 9 October 1468.

At the same time, the King ordered that noble deputies be elected in provincial assemblies throughout the kingdom, and would then come to participate in the General Assembly (the Sejm).

The King, the members of his Council and the deputies which were elected by the provincial assemblies met in the Sejm, which opened its session on 9 October 1468.

The King and his Council members turned to the representatives of the various lands to find a way to pay the soldiers their outstanding dues. However, the deputies stated that they did not have a mandate to decide whether to help the King. Therefore, the Sejm referred the decision back to the provincial assemblies.

The significance of 1468

In this way, the practice became established in subsequent assemblies during the reign of King Casimir of debating with the participation of deputies elected in the provincial assemblies who formed a separate chamber.

A later assembly at Piotrków (1493) is considered the first, historical gathering of three estates: King of Poland, the Senate – upper house consisting of 81 bishops and other dignitaries, and the lower house, consisting of 54 deputies from the gentry and the larger cities. With the passing of time the number of deputies and their privileges increased significantly.

The gentry made up about ten percent of the whole population and formed the basis of the army. This gave them political power and strong influence in shaping the law and parliamentary procedure, resulting in limiting the power of the monarch.

Parliament gained powers over legislation, taxation, the budget and foreign affairs. Wars could not be waged outside of Poland without the Sejm’s consent and no deputy could be detained without Parliamentary consent, an early form of Parliamentary immunity.

Liberum Veto and the Constitution of 3 May

Proceedings were in later centuries affected by the privilege of liberum veto, giving any deputy or senator the right to veto legislation. Since the second half of 17th century this gentry right was used to paralyze parliamentary debates, and brought the country to the brink of collapse.

The Sejm convened by King Stanisław August in 1788, known as the Great, or Four-Year Sejm, embarked upon the long delayed reforms and enacted several laws, from which the most important was the Constitution of May 3. The power enjoyed by the Sejm of the First Republic (up to 1795) was far greater than other representative bodies functioning at that time in Europe. It did not, however, prevent a weakened Poland from being partitioned between Russia, Prussia and Austria-Hungary in 1795.

The partition years

During the partition era (1795-1918) a Polish state was partially rebuilt by Napoleon Bonaparte as the Duchy of Warsaw (1807- 1815). It had a two-chamber assembly with two-fifths of seats in the lower chamber reserved for non-noble deputies. In 1815 the Congress of Vienna set up a semi-autonomous Kingdom of Poland under the protectorate of Russia with a bi-cameral parliament.

In the wake of the November Uprising for independence (1830-1831), the Assembly, having dethroned the Tsar, became the supreme authority of the state till the end of the struggle.

Although after the failure of the uprising, the Parliament of the Kingdom of Poland was abolished, there were still other Polish parliamentary bodies acting in the annexed territories. The Krakow Republic (proclaimed by the Congress of Vienna) was governed by a Senate and a Representative Assembly. A part of the Prussian partition – Grand Duchy of Poznań – also had its own parliament. Polish territories under Austrian rule gained far reaching autonomy and its own Provincial Sejm of Galicia (1861-1914).

The regaining of independence

Poland regained its independence at the end of the WWI in 1918, and was internationally recognized in 1919 by the Treaty of Versailles. Several weeks later an electoral law was enacted, extending the suffrage to people of both sexes over 21 years of age.

The first legislative Sejm began its sittings in February 1919 and quickly brought a provisional constitution that introduced a parliamentary republic as its system of government.

The early parliaments of the Second Republic were a stage of short-lived coalitions and political crises, which resulted in the coup d’état in May 1926, organized by the father of Poland’s independence, Marshal Józef Piłsudski. Two months later, an amendment to the constitution was introduced, strengthening the executive and limiting the Parliament’s powers. A clause allowing the President to dissolve Parliament and issue emergency decrees was added.

The decade that followed was the scene of political struggle between the Parliament and the government. The conflict culminated in April 1935, when the new constitution was passed with deputies of the opposition absent. The new law gave the President enormous power and reduced the number of Parliamentary deputies.

The effects of the Second World War

After the German and Soviet invasion of Poland in September 1939 the Sejm was dissolved, and its role was carried on by the National Council in Exile in London.

This assembly was supplemented by an underground Council in occupied Poland, representing all the major political parties.

On July 22, 1944, pro-Russian Polish Committee of National Liberation took over power in Poland being liberated by the Red Army. The Yalta agreements (1945) provided for a free election in Poland. The election that took place in January 1947 was anything but free; thousands were disqualified from voting, thousands were in prison on the day (including 149 parliamentary candidates), and the final results of the voting were falsified.

Parliament in communist times

In 1952, a full constitution was adopted, which changed the name of the country to the Polish People’s Republic. The Parliament of that period consisted of a single chamber with 460 deputies.

Formally, in the years 1952-1989, Sejm was the highest organ of the State power. In practice it was submitted to the “leadership role of the Polish United Workers’ Party,” and its powers were substituted very often by the State Council.

The Parliament of that period was deprived of political representation or any opposition. In April 1989, due to the Round Table agreements between the communists and Solidarity leaders, several changes were made in the system of government and the electoral system. The offices of the President and the Senate were re-established. The election to the upper chamber was free from communist influence. Elections to the lower chamber were partly free but, with a majority of seats guaranteed for the communists.

Nevertheless, the June election of 1989 was a huge success of the Solidarity movement. It won 99 out of a 100 of Senate seats, and all the seats it was able to contest in the Lower House. On October 27, 1991, the first truly free Parliamentary election was held.

Parliamentary Republic restored

Both the 1992 and 1997 constitutions passed by the Parliament have provided for a system of Parliamentary government. The elected President has rather limited powers. Parliament remains the supreme legislative body. The Lower House also elects governments.

Today, the Polish Parliament consists of 460 deputies in the Sejm, and 100 senators in the Senate. The Lower House is elected by proportional representation while the Senate is elected by a first-past-the-post system in single-member constituencies.

Since 1989, parliaments have decentralized power in the state to elected local government and made Poland into a social market economy. They have approved Poland’s membership of NATO and the European Union.