For four decades before the historic Round Table Agreement, Poland had three legal political parties: the ruling communist PZPR and its two subservient coalition partners, the United Peasant Party and the Democratic Party. The first communist regime to gain power had outlawed the major pre-World War II parties--National Democracy, the Labor Party, and the Polish Peasant Party. The PZPR was formed in 1948 with the merger of the Polish United Workers' Party and the Polish Socialist Party. Realizing the lack of popular support for communism and public fears of Soviet domination, the Polish communists eschewed the term communist in their official name.
In return for acknowledging the leading role of the PZPR, the two major coalition partners and three smaller Catholic associations received a fixed number of seats in the Sejm. Although one of the latter category, Znak, was technically an independent party, its allotment of five seats gave it very limited influence. Typically, the United Peasant Party held 20 to 25 percent of the Sejm seats and the Democratic Party received about 10 percent. Despite the nominal diversity of the Sejm, the noncommunist parties had little impact, and the Sejm was essentially a rubber-stamp body that enacted legislation approved by the central decision-making organs of the PZPR. Following the Soviet model, political parties and religious associations, as well as all other mass organizations, labor unions, and the press only transmitted policy and programs from the central PZPR hierarchy to Polish society.
The years 1956, 1968, 1970, 1976, and 1980 were turning points in the evolution of organized political opposition in Poland. With the death of the Stalinist Boleslaw Beirut in 1956, Poland entered a brief period of de-Stalinization. The PZPR relaxed its intimidation of the intelligentsia, artists, and the church. The Znak group emerged and experimented as a semiautonomous vehicle of dialog between the PZPR and society. But with the Sovietorganized invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the PZPR again suppressed dissent and expelled outspoken Znak delegates from the Sejm. The 1970 shipyard strikes, which claimed hundreds of victims, brought down the regime of Wladyslaw Gomulka (1956-70) and demonstrated the potential of workers to oppose unpopular PZPR policies. In 1976 the arrest of striking workers convinced a group of intellectuals, led by Jacek Kuron and Adam Michnik, to form the Committee for Defense of Workers (Komitet Obrony Robotników--KOR), the most successful opposition group until Solidarity.
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