Thirty years ago today! Poland’s first free elections under commie rule paved the way for democracy and the death of communism

On Sunday, June 4, 1989, the first round of elections to the Sejm and Senate were held, with 62 percent voter turnout. Stanisław Jakubowski/PAP

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the June 4, 1989, elections in Poland, which ended with an extraordinary victory for the Solidarity trade union.

Although only partially free, these were the first openly-contested parliamentary elections in Poland since the beginning of the communist era, the result being the collapse of communism and the onset of Political change not only in Poland, but across Central and Eastern Europe.

The June 4 elections of 1989 were the result of an agreement reached between the communist authorities and representatives of the pro-democracy opposition and the Church during the so-called ‘Round Table’ talks. 

An important milestone in Polish history, the electoins saw a bloodless transition from one-party rule to democracy.Ireneusz Radkiewicz/PAP

In his book, ‘Half a century of Polish History 1939-1989,’ Professor Andrzej Paczkowski wrote of the Round Table: “Its most important fruit was the extensive political agreement, known half ironically, half cynically as the ‘Contract of the century.’

“This was comprised of a package of arrangements concerning both the essential reorganization of the highest state bodies – introduction of the second chamber of parliament (the Senate) and the office of President of the People’s Republic of Poland – and the form of electoral regulations. 

The elections were the result of an agreement reached between the communist authorities and representatives of the pro-democracy opposition and the Church during the so-called ‘Round Table’ talks. Jan Bogacz/PAP

“After much haggling it was established that all the seats in the Senate and 35 percent of seats in the Sejm (lower house of parliament) would be filled as a result of free elections while the remaining 65 percent of MPs would be chosen from a list of a ‘curial’ nature divided between the PZPR (workers party) and their allies in the PRON (Patriotic Movement for National Rebirth), including 35 from a national list. 

“In this way the communists assured themselves, or so they thought, ‘a controlling package’ of mandates sufficient for the ongoing rule of the country while making unilateral constitutional changes practically impossible, requiring two thirds of the vote.”

Although only partially free, these were the first openly-contested parliamentary elections in Poland since the beginning of the communist era.Henryk Rosiak/PAP

He added: “Thanks to the limitation of Senate seats to 100, they also created a huge opportunity of choosing a candidate for president supported by them, because that election would be made by both houses of parliament combined in a National Assembly. 

“In this way, according to the letter of the law, the elections became ‘non-confrontational’ in nature although the PZPR believed that the formula would also mean a mild election campaign.”

The agreement reached on limitations to the parliamentary elections was a once-only deal. All future elections were to be conducted on entirely democratic principles. 

On April 7, 1989, the Sejm adopted the ‘Law on changing the Constitution of the PRL’ introducing among other measures, rules on the Senate, the president’s office and regulations on elections to the Sejm and Senate. 

All future elections in Poland were to be conducted on entirely democratic principles. Jan Morek/PAP

On April 13, the State Council set the date of elections for June 4 and 18, 1989. A few days later, in line with the arrangements of the Round Table, the Solidarity trade union was legalized (June 17 1989) along with Rural Solidarity (April 20 1989). 

In line with the will of the Solidarity National Executive Commission, the Citizens’ Committee was put in charge of running the election campaign. On April 23, at the Committee’s first sitting, the electoral lists for the Sejm and Senate were confirmed. 

On Sunday, June 4, 1989, the first round of elections to the Sejm and Senate were held, with 62 percent voter turnout. 

In the Senate elections, the Citizens’ Committee candidates won 92 seats, the government coalition won none. 

In turn, in the election to the Sejm, Solidarity won 160 of the 161 seats available. Of the 299 seat available to the government coalition, the incumbents won only three. 

Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa voting in Poland’s first free elections since the imposition of Communism.Stefan Kraszewski/PAP

Meanwhile of the 35 candidates on the national list, which featured leading representatives of the governing coalition, only two received more than 50 percent of votes, meaning that under the electoral law, the other 33 were eliminated and the seats went unfilled. 

The elections were a huge success for Solidarity and the scale of their victory surprised not only the communists but also the opposition. 

They were the first step towards bringing back democracy and ending communism across Central and Eastern Europe.