Poland Table of Contents

The breakthrough in ending the political monopoly of the PZPR came in 1980 with the emergence of the Interfactory Strike Committee, which rapidly evolved into the Solidarity mass movement of some 10 million Poles. Guided by Lech Walesa, the Interfactory Strike Committee won historic concessions from the communists in the Gdansk Agreement of August 31, 1980. The PZPR granted recognition of the basic right of workers to establish free trade unions, but in return the strike committee agreed not to function as a political party. The workers promised to abide by the constitution and conceded the leading role in state affairs to the PZPR.

Despite the pledges of the Gdansk Agreement, Solidarity did not remain simply a trade union movement. It rapidly changed into an umbrella organization under which a broad range of political and social groups united in opposition to the communist regime. At Solidarity's first national congress in the fall of 1981, the political nature of the movement became explicit. The congress adopted a program calling for an active Solidarity role in reforming Poland's political and economic systems. In the following months, outspoken radicals urged their leaders to confront the communist authorities, to demand free elections, and to call for a national referendum to replace the communist government. The radical challenge precipitated the imposition of martial law on December 13, 1981. Solidarity, now illegal, was forced underground until the late 1980s. Within six months after the start of the Round Table talks in February 1989, Solidarity not only had regained its legal status as a trade union, but also had become an effective political movement that installed Eastern Europe's first postcommunist government.

During its underground phase, Solidarity lost much of its original cohesion as tactical and philosophical disagreements split the movement into factions. The radical elements, convinced that an evolutionary approach to democratization was impossible, created the organization Fighting Solidarity in 1982. Ultimately, however, Walesa's moderate faction prevailed. Favoring negotiation and compromise with the PZPR, the moderates created the Citizens' Committee, which represented Solidarity at the talks in 1989 and engineered the overwhelming election triumph of June 1989. Led by Bronislaw Geremek, a prominent intellectual, the newly elected Solidarity deputies in parliament formed the Citizens' Parliamentary Club to coordinate legislative efforts and advance the Solidarity agenda.

The stunning defeat of the PZPR in the June 1989 parliamentary elections removed Solidarity's most important unifying force--the common enemy. By the time of the local elections of May 1990, Solidarity had splintered, and a remarkable number of small parties had appeared. Because any individual with fifteen nominating signatures could be placed on the ballot, an astounding 1,140 groups and "parties" registered for the elections. In the local elections, the new groups' lack of organization and national experience caused them to fare poorly against the Solidarity-backed citizens' committees that sponsored about one-third of the candidates running for local office.

Despite the success of the Solidarity candidates in the local elections, serious divisions soon emerged within the Citizens' Parliamentary Club concerning the appropriateness of political parties at so early a stage in Poland's democratic experiment. The intellectuals who dominated the parliamentary club insisted that the proliferation of political parties would derail efforts to build a Western-style civil society. But deputies on the right of the political spectrum, feeling excluded from important policy decisions by the intellectuals, advocated rapid formation of strong alternative parties.

More about the Government of Poland.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress