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1989 - Break-Through Year

On 29 December 1989, the era of the People’s Republic of Poland formally came to its end. Our country then regained its historic name of the Republic of Poland: “Rzeczpospolita Polska”, and was no longer “a socialist state” as defined in its Constitution, but a democratic state founded on the rule of law. The Articles speaking about the “leadership role of the Polish United Workers’ Party” and the alliance with the Soviet Union were deleted and the Polish eagle in the national emblem regained its crown. A day earlier, the Lower House, the Sejm, adopted the “Balcerowicz plan”, a package of laws ushering in a transformation of the economic system from a ‘socialist’ to a free market one.


Three events had been decisive for a turn-around in Poland’s situation in 1989: Round Table talks proceeding from 6 February to 5 April, the elections to the Sejm and the Senate on June 4, and the formation of a government descending from “Solidarity”, headed by Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, on 12 September.


The Round Table brought together two empowered sides: “Solidarity” which after 13 December 1981, (imposition of Martial Law in Poland) made a return to legal operations its main objective, and in doing so, it appreciated the need to come to terms with the ruling authority; and on the opposite side, the Polish United Workers’ Party who had for years been repeating like a mantra a statement that Solidarity was no more and there would never be again. A draft compromise had been determined earlier: “Solidarity” was to be restored to legality and in return it was to take part in the elections which were not completely free, involuntarily offering legitimacy to new authorities. In the course of detailed negotiations, modest reforms of several areas of public life were drafted. After four years of peaceful co-existence between the government and the opposition, the experiment was meant to be expanded: the next elections to be completely free, civil liberties no longer curtailed and further reforms of the political and economic system undertaken.


There was moderate interest in the Round Table talks among the general public. It was appreciated that each of the parties would have about 15 percent of active supporters, the outstanding 70 percent of the society having succumbed to apathy: with empty pockets and empty shelves in shops, everyday hardships, no prospects for future prosperity, deprived of hope that something could change for the better. Seven years full of black anti-opposition propaganda had elapsed from the suppression of “Solidarity”. The official media coverage of the talks would not favour any realization of the ground-breaking significance of the Round Table, either.


The date for the election was fixed for 4 June. “This was no less than an ordeal’, Jacek Kuron recalls, ‘How to organize, carry out and win an election campaign in a country of 40 million people, without any money, logistics behind and structures on the ground? And to do so in a country where there had not been any regular elections for forty years? It was undoable. Especially given that the other side had money, logistical support and well functioning structures”.


”Solidarity” entrusted the management of the campaign to the Civic Committee: a group of 120 individuals, scholars, artists, Catholic activists who had only managed to meet together on a few occasions before. And a miracle happened: several hundred local civic committees sprung up across the country, thousands of volunteers stood by ready to work several hours a day, equipped with typewriters, painting materials, chairs and kettles. Walls of the buildings were covered with Solidarity posters. Illegal copying machines were got out to print leaflets, pamphlets and newspapers. Makeshift info points sprang up on the streets, and campaigners drew passers-by into debates. Priests were of avail, offering their parish premises and encouraging the faithful to participate in the vote. An enthusiasm comparable only to that accompanying the foundation of “Solidarity” prevailed.


When asked what was the point in the Round Table, Tadeusz Mazowiecki responded : “to create a space for freedom”.  And freedom is contagious. The elections provided an opportunity for the society to reach out for empowerment and to repossess itself. Although Solidarity could not win the vote, it gained all that was feasible. The authorities lost their confidence at the same time as a result. The Senate, dominated by Solidarity with all but one seat secured by the popular movement, made the artificial and non-representative composition of the Sejm even more self-evident. Bronisław Geremek observed: “As we embarked on elections, we had no sense of power that was to be derived from them”. Three months later, the first non-Communist government after the war was formed (albeit with some Ministers from the Communist party). Celebrated actors kept reminding us: “We are back home at last”. We regained our state.

1989 Timeline

18 January – The Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party (PUWP) announced its plans to lift the restrictions on the formation of trade unions.

22 January – Solidarity’s National Executive Committee: it is ‘a crucial step towards social dialogue. This makes possible negotiations concerning Solidarity and national affairs’.

27 January – At a meeting in Magdalenka, Lech Wałęsa and the communist interior minister Czesław Kiszczak agreed on 6 February as the date of opening of Round Table talks as well as on the procedure and the subjects to be discussed.

5 April – Following two-month-long negotiations, Round Table accords were adopted. Lech Wałęsa: ‘We have achieved the necessary minimum to embark upon the road of democratic transformations’.

7 April – The Sejm, the lower house of the Polish Parliament, enacted amendments to the Constitution (reinstatement of the presidency and the senate, new electoral laws for parliamentary elections) and a law on associations.

8 April – Solidarity’s Civic Committee assumed the patronage of the trade union’s parliamentary election campaign.

13 April – The Council of State set the date of the elections for 4 and 18 June.

17 April – Warsaw’s Voivodeship Court once again registered the de-legalised Independent Self-governing Trade Union Solidarity, and three days later – the Independent Self-governing Trade Union Solidarity of Individual Farmers.

23 April – Solidarity’s Civic Committee approved a list of opposition candidates for the Sejm and the Senate.

28 April – Solidarity’s first programme on the Polish Radio.

29 April – A meeting of 260 Civic Committee candidates at the Gdańsk Shipyard; their photographs with Lech Wałęsa were later used in the election campaign.

8 May – The first issue of the Gazeta Wyborcza (Electoral Gazette) daily.

9 May – The first Solidarity Studio programme on the Polish Public Television (TVP).

2 June – Restoration of the Tygodnik Solidarność weekly.

4 June – The first round of the elections, voter turnout at 62 per cent. Solidarity’s Civic Committee won 252 out of the 261 parliamentary seats available to the opposition. The defeat of the ‘national list’ put forward by the communist authorities: 33 out of the 35 prominent figures from the PUWP and its satellite parties: the Polish Peasant Party and the Democratic Party, failed to win seats in the Sejm.

12 June – The Council of State changed the Sejm electoral law in order to make it possible to fill the seats reserved for the ‘national list’.

18 June – The second round of the elections, voter turnout at 26 per cent. Only one Solidarity candidate failed to win a seat. 260 Solidarity MPs and senators would form a Civic Parliamentary Club.

3 July – Adam Michnik’s article ‘Your President, Our Prime Minister’ in Gazeta Wyborcza, a proposal for Solidarity to join the government.

4 July – Opening sessions of the Sejm and the Senate.

7 July – The end of the ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’; Mikhail Gorbachev rules out an intervention by the USSR into other states’ domestic affairs.

19 July – The National Assembly (both Houses of Parliament in a joint sitting) elected Wojciech Jaruzelski president; he won by one vote above the necessary minimum.

2 August – Czesław Kiszczak put forward as a candidate for the premiership.

7 August – Lech Wałęsa: a coalition of the Civic Parliamentary Club, the Polish Peasant Party and the Democratic Party should form the government.

19 August – Kiszczak resigned.

24 August – The Sejm appointed Tadeusz Mazowiecki Prime Minister.

12 September – The Sejm approves the composition of Mazowiecki’s government: the prime minister and 12 ministers from Solidarity, 4 from the PUWP and the Polish Peasant Party each, 3 from the Democratic Party, and one independent minister.

28 October – The actress Joanna Szczepkowska announces in the Polish Public Television main news edition: ‘On 4 June 1989, communism in Poland had come to an end’.

9 November – Demolition of the Berlin Wall.

28 December – The Sejm approves the ‘Balcerowicz plan’, i.e. ten laws changing Poland’s economic system from a socialist to a market-based one.

29 December – The constitutional provisions concerning the leadership role of the PUWP and the alliance with the Soviet Union were abrogated and the name ‘Republic of Poland’ and the national emblem featuring an eagle wearing a crown were restored; the formal end of the People’s Republic of Poland.

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