Although significantly amended after the Round Table Agreement of April 1989, much of the constitution of 1952 remained in effect in mid-1992. The symbolic target date of May 3, 1992 for adopting a new constitution proved unrealistic in light of Poland's political climate. That date would have commemorated the twohundredth anniversary of the enactment of Poland's first written constitution, the Ustawa Rzadowa of May 3, 1791--a widely hailed document intellectually rooted in the philosophy of the Enlightenment. But in 1990 and 1991 a new constitution was impossible because the Round Table Agreement had allowed the communists continued predominance in the Sejm and because of growing factionalism within Solidarity, the most powerful party. Even after free parliamentary elections in October 1991, however, political instability precluded the adoption of a new constitution in the near term.
The Constitution of 1952
With the adoption of the 1952 document, which replicated much of the Soviet Union's 1936 constitution, the Republic of Poland was renamed the Polish People's Republic, and the crown symbolizing national independence was removed from the country's flag. The constitution declared that power derived from the working people, who by universal suffrage and the secret ballot elected their representatives in the Sejm and the regional and local people's councils. Like its Soviet counterpart, the 1952 Polish constitution listed in exhaustive detail the basic rights and responsibilities of the population. All citizens, regardless of nationality, race, religion, sex, level of education, or social status, were guaranteed work, leisure, education, and health care. The constitution promised freedom of religion, speech, the press, assembly, and association, and it guaranteed inviolability of the person, the home, and personal correspondence. As in the Soviet Union, however, the idealistic Polish constitution did not deliver the promised individual rights and liberties.
Instead, the constitution of 1952 provided a facade of legitimacy, behind which the PZPR concentrated real political power in its central party organs, particularly the Political Bureau, usually referred to as the Politburo, and the Secretariat. The document's ambiguous language concerning establishment of a state apparatus enabled the PZPR to bend the constitution to suit its purposes. The traditional tripartite separation of powers among governmental branches was abandoned. The constitution allowed the PZPR to control the state apparatus "in the interests of the working people." As a result, all levels of government were staffed with PZPR-approved personnel, and government in fact functioned as the party's administrative, subordinate partner.
Between 1952 and 1973, the PZPR-dominated Sejm approved ten constitutional amendments concerning the organization and function of central and local government bodies. In 1976, after four years of work by a Sejm constitutional commission, roughly one-third of the original ninety-one articles were amended. The new version described Poland as a socialist state, presumably signifying advancement from its earlier status as a people's democracy. For the first time, the constitution specifically mentioned the PZPR, which was accorded special status as the "guiding political force of society in building socialism." The document also recognized the Soviet Union as the liberator of Poland from fascism and as the innovator of the socialist state. More importantly, the 1976 amendments committed Poland to a foreign policy of friendly relations with the Soviet Union and its other socialist neighbors. These provisions, which in effect surrendered Polish national sovereignty, provoked such widespread protest by the intelligentsia and the Roman Catholic hierarchy that the government was forced to recast the amendments in less controversial terms.
In the decade preceding the Round Table Agreement, the PZPR endorsed a number of amendments to the 1952 constitution in a vain attempt to gain legitimacy with the disgruntled population. In the spirit of the Gdansk Agreement of August 1980, which recognized workers' rights to establish free trade unions, the constitution was amended in October 1980. The amendments of that time promised to reduce PZPR influence over the Sejm. For that purpose, the Supreme Control Chamber (Najwyzsza Izba Kontroli-- NIK--chief agency for oversight of the government's economic and administrative activities) was transferred from the Council of Ministers to the Sejm. In December 1981, the imposition of martial law temporarily halted the erosion of the party's constitutional authority. But in March 1982, the Jaruzelski regime resumed its effort to appease the public by again amending the constitution.
The March 1982 amendments provided for the creation of two independent entities, the Constitutional Tribunal and the State Tribunal, which had the effect of reestablishing the traditional Polish constitutional principle of government by rule of law. The 1976 amendments had placed adjudication of the constitutionality of statutes with the Council of State (chief executive organ of the nation). Although the authority of the Constitutional Tribunal was strictly limited, beginning in 1982 that body issued a number of important decisions forcing the repeal of questionable regulations. The State Tribunal was established to adjudicate abuses of power by government officials. Although legally prevented from reviewing the activities of Sejm deputies, the State Tribunal represented yet another major step in the evolution of the democratic concept of government by the consent of the governed.
Shortly before the official lifting of martial law in July 1983, the Sejm enacted additional constitutional changes that held the promise of political pluralism. For the first time, the United Peasant Party and the Democratic Party officially were recognized as legitimate political parties, existing independently from the PZPR. The amendments also tacitly sanctioned the political activities of church organizations by stressing that public good can derive from "societal organizations."
Another important step toward meaningful constitutional guarantees in a civil society was the July 1987 decision to establish the Office of the Commissioner for Citizens' Rights as a people's ombudsman. The office provided a mechanism for citizens to file grievances against government organs for violations of constitutionally guaranteed civil rights. Receiving more than 50,000 petitions in its first year, the office immediately proved to be more than a symbolic concession.
Constitutional Revisions after April 1989
The Round Table Agreement brought a number of amendments that substantially altered the 1952 Constitution. The so-called April Amendments resurrected the traditional Polish constitutional concept of separation of powers. The legislative branch would again be bicameral after four decades of a single, 460-member Sejm. The new body included a freely elected 100-member Senate and retained the 460-member Sejm as its lower chamber. Power would be distributed among the houses of parliament and the newly established Office of the President, which was to assume many of the executive powers previously held by the Council of State. The April Amendments provided for election of the president by the two houses of parliament.
In December 1989, the new parliament made several additional, highly symbolic amendments to the 1952 constitution to rid the document of Marxist terminology. The PZPR lost its special status when its identification as the political guiding force in Polish society was deleted from the constitution. The hated words "People's Republic" would be discarded and the state's official name would be restored to the prewar "Republic of Poland." Article 2 was revised to read "Supreme authority in the Republic of Poland is vested in the People," amending the Marxist phrase "the working people." The amendments of December 1989 also wrote into law the equality of all forms of property ownership, the essential first step in establishing a market economy.
Aware that piecemeal revision of the Stalinist 1952 constitution would not meet the needs of a democratic Polish society, in December 1989 the Sejm created a Constitutional Commission to write a fully democratic document untainted by association with Poland's communist era. The next year, the National Assembly (the combined Sejm and Senate) prescribed the procedure by which the draft would be enacted. The document would require approval by a two-thirds vote of both assembly houses in joint session, followed by a national referendum. Theoretically, this procedure would bolster the constitution's legitimacy against doubts created by the dubious political credentials of some of its authors.
Chaired by one of the Solidarity movement's most brilliant intellectuals, Bronislaw Geremek, the Sejm Constitutional Commission faced serious obstacles from the outset. The legitimacy of the Sejm itself was at issue because the Round Table Agreement had allowed Solidarity to contest only 35 percent of the Sejm seats. Claiming that its open election in 1989 made it more representative of the popular will, the Senate condemned the Sejm Constitutional Commission and began working on its own version of a new constitution. In reality, however the Senate was not an accurate cross section of Polish society because it lacked representatives from the peasants and the political left. Subsequent efforts to form a joint Sejm-Senate constitutional commission proved futile.
After his victory in the December 1990 presidential election, Walesa cast further doubt on the commission's activity by challenging the credentials of the existing Sejm. Nevertheless, the commission continued its work and presented a fairly complete draft constitution by the spring of 1991. The draft was based on the two series of amendments passed in 1989. It also borrowed heavily from various Western constitutions, most notably the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). The draft was soon discarded, however, because of the Sejm's undemocratic constituency; for the same reason, the commission as such ceased to exist in 1991.
In the first half of 1992, attention shifted to the so-called Little Constitution, a document that used much of the 1991 draft in redefining the relationship between the legislative and executive branches of government and clarifying the division of power between the president and the prime minister. The Little Constitution was to be a compromise that would solidify as many democratic institutions as possible before all constitutional controversies could be resolved. Nevertheless, the new document would supersede all but a few provisions of the 1952 constitution and provide the basis for a full constitution when remaining points of dispute could be resolved. Its drafts retained the statement that Poland was a democratic state of law guided by principles of social justice. Agencies such as the Constitutional Tribunal, the State Tribunal, and the Office of the Commissioner for Citizens Rights were also retained.
|Country Studies main page | Poland Country Studies main page|