Registration procedures are fair and transparent. There are different requirements for registering candidates and parties with the National Electoral Commission for established parties (i.e., those already represented in parliament and having at least 15 MPs, which is the minimum number to form a parliamentary club) as opposed to new parties and non-party candidates. Unlike the former, the latter need to document 5,000 supportive signatures in at least half of the national constituencies. This requirement creates some barriers to electoral participation, especially for non-party candidates, but has not really stifled competition. In order to prevent a discrimination of ethnic minorities, parties representing such minorities can take part in the elections when they gather the required signatures in five different constituencies only.
The pluralist media system in Poland ensures that all parties and candidates have access to the media. Even after the 2007 change in government, however, the public media have tended to favor the conservative PiS. This especially applies to TVP1, the main public television program, which has a broad audience. New and small parties also suffer from the fact that the Polish media pays a disproportionately large amount of attention to the big political actors.
The electoral process is largely inclusive. Unlike in other countries, prisoners are allowed to vote. Some confusion is caused by different voting procedures for presidential, parliamentary and local elections. However, the main problem is the lack of absentee voting, which creates problems for the large number of Polish citizens living outside Poland as well as for the handicapped or seriously ill. The former often have to travel long distances to a Polish embassy or consulate if they want to vote; the latter often cannot vote at all. Moreover, many polling stations are not accessible to the handicapped. Part of the problems have been addressed by new legislation in November 2009, which enables handicapped people and people over 75 to vote through a plenipotentiary and obliges the municipalities to improve the accessibility of polling stations.
Introduced in 2001, the new Polish system of party financing provides for a high level of public funding while setting relatively strict limits on the private financing of parties. The system has made party financing more transparent, contributed to a decline in corruption, and strengthened those parties that cannot rely on assets from the communist period (Walecki 2005). The restrictions on private donations are sometimes circumvented and the National Election Committee (Państwowa Komisja Wyborcza – PKW), which supervises campaign and party financing, could be more effective. The main problem with the system, however, is the algorithm upon which the allocation of public funds is based. It favors the bigger parties and pushes up public spending when the concentration of the party system increases (Zbieranek 2009). The resulting surge in overall public support for parties from PLN 36 million in 2003 to PLN 107 million in 2008 has not gone well with the general public. A 2008 proposal by the governing PO to abolish the public support for parties and give citizens the right to donate part of their income tax payments to parties of their own choice instead did not find a majority. Instead, parliament passed a bill submitted by the leftist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) that aimed at reducing the overall amount of public money given to political parties. However, this bill was vetoed and sent to the Constitutional Court by President Kaczyński.
Walecki, Marcin, 2005: Money and Politics in Poland. Warszawa: Instytut Spraw Publicznych.
Zbieranek, Jarosław, 2009: System finansowania partii politycznych w Polsce - kierunki zmian. Instytut Spraw Publicznych, Analizy i Opinie No. 91, 3-8.
Under the Tusk government, government influence on the media has declined. Reporters without Borders registered a substantial increase in press freedom and ranked Poland 19 positions higher in 2009 than in 2007. In December 2008, parliament removed a controversial passage in the penal code that had punished libel with time in prison. The reform of the electronic media, which still show a strong bias in favor of the PiS, has been subject to greater controversy Rumor has it that the government was involved in a coup at the National Council of Radio and Television at the end of 2008, which resulted in the suspension of the PiS-leaning leadership of public television and, at the same time, made director of TV Polska a representative of a right-wing fringe party with dubious credentials. In May 2009, the governing coalition adopted a new media law which aimed at changing the composition of the National Council, but also expanded the powers of the council vis-à-vis journalists. Due to President Kaczyński’s veto, however, the reform has not been enacted yet.
Reporters without Borders, Press Freedom Index (http://en.rsf.org/information-tools,803.html).
Poland is among the European countries with the highest market share of public television. However, the overall ownership structure of Polish media is quite diversified. Private electronic and print media compensate for biases or deficiencies in public media, thus providing for a high degree of media pluralism. Foreign ownership declined in 2008 when media mogul Rupert Murdoch withdrew from TV Puls, a television channel that offers programming on Catholic issues. A major, yet-to-be-tackled challenge for media pluralism is the disastrous financial situation of the public media. Less than 50% of all Poles pay the license fees that comprise almost half of TV Polska’s revenues. In August 2009, TV Polska announced mass layoffs, which are likely to reduce the quality of its programs. The public radio stations also face severe revenue problems.
The law provides for far-reaching access to government information. However, citizens are often not aware of their rights and have so far made little use of them. If citizens do request information, public bodies often respond too late. The Commissioner for Citizens’ Rights, the Polish ombudsman, has called for greater transparency, arguing that the right to information should be given priority over protecting the privacy of public officials.
State institutions largely respect and protect civil rights. However, the protection of civil rights suffers from inefficiency in the Polish court system and the resulting lengthy proceedings. Sometimes, minority rights also fall victim to the presence of strong informal social control in small localities, which is encouraged by the conservatism found among the lower clergy strata of the Polish Catholic Church. The Tusk government has demonstrated greater respect for civil rights than its predecessor. One controversial issue has been the treatment of pedophiles. Prime Minister Tusk publicly denied them the status of human beings, and the Sejm passed a law in September 2009 allowing for chemical castration of convicted pedophiles.
Political liberties are well codified, and are respected and protected by most state institutions. There are no meaningful restrictions on the freedom of association or assembly, and the freedom of expression is also secured. However, President Kaczyński showed a certain disrespect for political liberties, most notably by questioning the right of homosexuals to hold a gay parade.
Compared to its predecessor, the Tusk government has paid more attention to the fight against discrimination. In particular, it re-established the Plenipotentiary for Equal Treatment, a position that had been abolished by the previous government. However, Poland has not yet implemented the EU anti-discrimination directive, and the European Commission lodged a complaint against Poland at the European Court of Justice in May 2009 for not implementing three EU directives on gender discrimination. Moreover, the Plenipotentiary for Equal Treatment lacks autonomy and does not have a mandate to take complaints. Sexual harassment of women and homophobia are frequently observed, and the wage gap between men and women is still relatively high. Finally, the government, like its predecessors, has refrained from challenging the Catholic Church’s monopolistic position. Only about 2% of all Polish public schools offer classes in ethics, thus effectively denying most pupils the right to take such classes instead of classes in religion.
Executive actions are largely guided by law. Compared to its predecessor, the Tusk government has shown a much stronger respect for the law and the established institutional arrangements. However, the difficult relation between the government and the president and the latter’s frequent use of vetoes have reduced legal certainty by complicating the implementation process. Moreover, the predictability of administrative behavior in Poland is sometimes limited by complex and contradictory regulations.
The independence and performance of the courts differ among the tiers of the court system. The Constitutional Tribunal, the Supreme Court and the State Tribunal (which decides on violations of the constitution by top officials) generally work well and largely fulfill their functions of monitoring the executive. The Tusk government further strengthened the separation of powers by abolishing the provision that the minister of justice also acts as public prosecutor general. Unlike the preceding PiS government, the Tusk government also largely respected the independence of the judiciary. However, the lower courts continue to underperform. They are subject to inefficient and time-consuming procedures, prone to corruption, and thus suffer a poor reputation.
The justices of the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court are chosen on the basis of different rules. In the case of the Supreme Court, the ultimate decision is made by the National Council of the Judiciary, a constitutional body consisting of representatives of all three branches of power. The 15 justices of the Constitutional Tribunal are by contrast elected individually by the Sejm for terms of nine years by an absolute majority of votes in the presence of at least one-half of all MPs. The president of the republic, then, selects the president and the vice-president of the court out of the 15 justices and on the basis of proposals made by the justices themselves. In the past, the weak majority requirement for choosing justices of the Constitutional Tribunal served to favor political appointments. Since 2006, the selection process has thus been closely monitored by an NGO-coalition consisting of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, the Polish Section of the International Commission of Jurists, and, since January 2010, the Institute for Law and Society. In 2010, public pressure from this coalition led a candidate of the governing PO to withdraw his candidacy.
Despite the of sophisticated anti-corruption legislation, corruption has been a major issue in Poland. In November 2007, the Tusk government established the new position of a government plenipotentiary for the struggle against corruption. One of its tasks has been the reform of the controversial Anti-Corruption Office (Centralne Biuro Antykorupcyjne, CBA), a powerful, but nontransparent and highly politicized agency created by the previous government. Fearing the charge of not being sufficiently tough on corruption, the government for a long time did not dare to overhaul the CBA. In October 2009, however, it eventually suspended CBA-director Mariusz Kaminski after the so-called gambling games affair. Corruption prevails in public administration and the health sector. In preparation of the 2012 European football championship, the fight against corruption in football teams also became a major political issue.
The Polish economy has recently shown strong economic performance, being the OECD country with the highest growth in GDP for 2009. While this record has partly reflected the country’s lower dependence on external developments and the remaining exchange rate flexibility, Poland has also benefited from a relatively coherent economic policy. The Tusk government succeeded in making Poland even more attractive to foreign investors, and stimulated the economy through an expansive fiscal policy and much needed public investments in preparation of the 2012 European football championship. However, progress with labor market policy, health care reform, pension reform, and research and innovation policy has been limited, and the government failed to commit itself credibly to medium-term fiscal adjustment.
The Tusk government has expanded active labor market policy. Compared to the previous government, it has emphasized more strongly activation measures and the promotion of self-employment, and it has drawn more strongly on EU funds. Moreover, it has limited the scope for early retirement. The government’s policies have shown some positive effects. The predicted collapse of the labor market in the wake of the economic crisis did not materialize, the number of long-term unemployed has fallen, the number of self-employed has risen and the labor market participation of older workers has increased slightly. Still, however, the overall employment rate is among the lowest in the OECD and regional disparities in (un)employment are large.
The Tusk government has pursued an active enterprise policy. Building on a comprehensive law on the freedom of economic activity passed in February 2008, it has sought to lower bureaucratic barriers to entrepreneurial activity. Part of this entails a one-stop-project aimed at reducing (from four to one) the number of offices that need to be contacted for registering a start-up, but which has progressed relatively slowly. A second key element of the government’s enterprise policy has been a strong commitment to privatization. The government originally aimed at privatizing 316 state companies, including a major bank (Bank Handlowy), the airline LOT, the Warsaw stock exchange, but also coals mines and enterprises in the chemicals sector. Although the economic crisis complicated the privatization, the government succeeded in privatizing a substantial number of companies and in raising €8.7 billion by 2010.
Tax reform featured prominently in the electoral manifesto of the PO in the 2005 and 2007 campaigns. After taking office, the Tusk government implemented two of its predecessor’s campaign promises, a further reduction in social security contributions and an increase in income tax credits for children (Morawski/ Myck 2008). Further progress with tax reform has been limited because of quarrels within the governing coalition and the economic crisis. In 2009, the Tusk government reduced the personal income tax rates from 19%, 30% and 40% to a respective 18% and 32% percent. But it postponed the introduction of a flat income tax due to fierce opposition by the Polish People’s Party (PSL), the PO’s coalition partner, even though the PO had advocated this very tax in the past. Since the beginning of the economic crisis, Finance Minister Rostowski has warned against premature tax cuts and has touted tax increases, in particular an increase in VAT.
Morawski, Leszek, Michal Myck 2008: ‘Klin’-ing Up: Effects of Polish Tax Reforms on Those In and Those Out. IZA, Discussion Paper No. 3746, Bonn.
In 2008 and 2009, Poland’s fiscal stance deteriorated considerably. Fiscal deficit growth was in part due to the adoption of substantial stimulus measures. Financing the deficit was facilitated by high privatization proceeds. In order to underline its commitment to medium-term fiscal adjustment and fiscal sustainability, the Tusk government initiated an amendment of the Public Finance Act in August 2008. Originally vetoed by President Kaczyński, this act was eventually signed in September 2009. The new legislation has increased the transparency of the public accounts, strengthened the requirements for governments to draw up medium-term budgets, and further specified the adjustment mechanisms to be triggered when the country’s public debt passes the legally set safety thresholds of 50%, 55% and 60% of GDP. However, original 2009 plans to reduce the deficit to 3% of GDP already in 2012 lacked credibility. In early 2010, the government reacted to concerns over the fiscal stance by discussing the introduction of expenditure rules.
Since the Polish health care system has suffered from high deficits and a low level and quality of services, health care reform has been among the priorities of the Tusk government. The envisaged reforms consisted of three main elements: more precisely defined public benefits, the corporatization of hospitals, and opening the system to private health insurance companies. These plans faced strong resistance by the opposition and by President Kaczyński, who vetoed the bill at the end of 2008. Lacking the support by the leftist SLD, the parties of the governing coalition were not able to overcome this veto. Since the veto, the Tusk government has tried to transform the hospitals in cooperation with the bodies of regional self-government.
Inequality of income and regional disparities between cities and rural areas, as well as between the western and eastern parts of the country, are relatively high. Only poverty among the elderly is among the lowest in the European Union. The Tusk government launched a new campaign in December 2008 aiming at improving the social situation of children, stressing activation schemes for parents and putting more effort on the development of social services. Two special points of concern are to improve gender equality, and facilitate better and closer consultation with civil society actors. This is supported by the EU, as 2010 was declared the European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion.
Female employment is below the OECD average. While the previous government had subscribed to a traditional male breadwinner model (matka polka), the Tusk government has sought to improve the labor market integration of women and foster a more balanced division of labor among the sexes. The government has undertaken some attempts at expanding child care facilities, which are among the most limited in the OECD. In particular, it has used EU funds for improving child care facilities in rural areas. An amendment to parental leave legislation in 2008 expanded the rights of parents to reduce their working time, introduced a special paternity leave, and improved opportunities for mothers to grant unused maternity leave to their husbands. Given the limited child care density, lowering the mandatory preschool age from six to five years of age and the mandatory school age from seven to six years of age will likely have a positive effect on female employment.
Poland has featured a modern three-pillar pension system since 1999. The Tusk government succeeded in improving the sustainability of the public pillar by drastically limiting the access to early retirement. However, it has refrained from equalizing the retirement ages for men (65 years) and women (60 years), a move that would both improve the financial situation of the public pillar and reduce poverty in old age among women. Like previous governments, the Tusk government has not dared to reform the generous pension scheme for farmers (KRUS). The continuing fiscal problems of the first pillar and the losses suffered during the global financial crisis by the private pension funds, which form the obligatory second pillar, have sparked a debate within government about redirecting some funds from the second pillar to the first. This debate has raised concerns about the future of the Polish pension system.
Migration to Poland has increased, but is still relatively low and thus does not feature very prominently on the political agenda. The legal framework for dealing with immigrants has emerged relatively slowly and has been shaped largely by the requirements of EU membership and other international obligations. Ethnic Poles and refugees are eligible to supportive measures such as financial support, language classes and help with the bureaucracy and accommodations for about a year. Other groups of migrants are not included in integration programs. However, there are several NGOs that take care of the needs of immigrants and cooperate with the state administration.
Poland is protected against external security risks through its membership in NATO and the EU. The Tusk government has succeeded in improving the relationship with Germany and Russia, and in rebuilding trust by its international partners more generally. It has also tried to increase Polish security by cooperating closely with Ukraine, and by forging a special relationship with the United States. While the government ended Poland’s unpopular involvement in Iraq in October 2008, it stuck to its commitment to host parts of the planned U.S. anti-missile shield system. Polish troops have taken part in a number of international military missions. The involvement in Afghanistan has revealed a number of weaknesses of the Polish military forces. Several generals have resigned, complaining of outdated and insufficient technical equipment, and citing the lack of support by the ministry of defense. In 2008, the Tusk government speeded up the phasing-out of compulsory military service.
Internal security in Poland has substantially increased. The number of homicides and thefts has continued to fall, and the feeling of safety has dramatically grown. In 2009, 69% of the respondents considered Poland to be a safe country. This was the best result ever since the beginning of the 1990s. Poland’s improved internal security can be attributed in part to its accession to the Schengen zone in December 2007, which has increased police cooperation with other EU members and helped modernize the Polish police force. In addition, the rising standard of living has played some role. One yet-to-be adequately tackled problem is the lack of coordination among the various organizations involved in fighting crime.
In Poland, concerns over environmental issues have been relatively low. The Tusk government has placed greater emphasis on environmental protection than its predecessor, not the least because of EU requirements, but it has clearly prioritized economic goals. Since Poland’s energy sector relies strongly on coal, the government has consistently opposed ambitious EU plans to reduce CO2 emissions. Official announcements to invest in “clean energy,” as they were made by Prime Minister Tusk after the December 2008 U.N. climate conference in Poznań, were not followed up by measures taken. The sale of unused emission rights to Spain and Ireland was heavily criticized by the EU. The disregard of environmental issues led to the resignation of environmental minister Maciej Nowicki in 2009.
Poland has suffered from low levels of public and private R&D expenditures and weak links between science and industry. The Tusk government’s research and innovation policy has largely focused on the public research sector. In 2008, it launched a medium-term reform based on a comprehensive analysis of the status quo provided by a commission. The reform has aimed at strengthening R&D at universities and research institutions, developing more flexible public-private partnerships, promoting more interdisciplinary research, and improving conditions for successful academic careers. Save for a substantial increase in public research funding, however, concrete measures have been limited so far.
As the high youth unemployment rate testifies, Poland’s education system has suffered from a lack of synchronization with the labor market. Vocational training is poorly developed. Tertiary enrollment has increased substantially since 1989, but academic qualifications often lack practical relevance or are not cherished by employers. The Tusk government has introduced some reforms: it lowered the compulsory school age from seven to six years of age, increased the salaries of teachers and launched a program delivering modern sports fields for the youth in every town and the laptop-for-every-pupil-program. In tandem with its attempts at strengthening R&D, it has sought to increase quality control in higher education.
Governments in charge
SGI 2011 review period (May 2008 to April 2010) is outlined. Shown are: Prime minister or president, type of government, and ruling parties. Asterisks indicate national parliamentary or presidential elections.
Country scores and texts were produced by the country coordinator, based on comprehensive assessments by two country experts.
Dr. Frank Bönker University of Cooperative Education, Leipzig
Dr. Claudia Matthes Berlin Graduate School of Social Sciences
Prof. Radoslaw Markowski Polish Academy of Sciences