The Polish Sejm
1. In the states of medieval Europe, society was divided into estates. Those estates – which differed mainly in their legal status – were: the nobility, the clergy, burghers and peasants. The nobility and the clergy were the privileged estates. It is in this estate system that estates assemblies of a representative nature have their origins. The organisation of European estates assemblies – which first appeared at the turn of the 12th and 13th centuries – varied depending on the specificity of particular countries. Those differences were also reflected in the names of individual estates assemblies.
The oldest parliament in Europe’s history was Iceland’s Althing, which first met in 930 and existed until 1800. The second was the Parliament convened in England in 1265; after a short time it split into two chambers (bicameral system). In France, the Estates-General (composed of three chambers) started to be convened by the King in 1302. The Hungarian Parliament was first summoned by the King at the end of the 13th century. The Cortes (consisting of three chambers) became the national parliament of Spain in the early 14th century.
Poland was among the few countries in Europe where the parliament played an especially important role - it was the Sejm that contributed the most to uniting the nation and the state. As in other European countries, the Polish Sejm as a representative body took shape through an evolutionary process. The General Sejm sitting at Piotrków since January 1493 was of special significance in that process. It was then that a bicameral parliament was established, consisting of the Senate (upper chamber) and the House of Deputies (lower chamber). Until the fall of the First Polish Commonwealth (Republic) in 1795, the Polish Sejm remained the sole representative of the nobility, which accounted for more than 10% of Poland’s total population. In no other European country was the privileged estate so numerous.
The extensive powers vested in the Polish Senate, which derived from the Royal Council, , in the first decades of the 16th century ensured its supremacy over the House of Deputies elected by dietines. From the mid-16th century, the House of Deputies became a political representation of middle nobility. Each chamber formed a separate “deliberating estate of the Sejm”. The King was a one-person “deliberating estate of the Sejm” (until 1791). The concept of “three deliberating estates of the Sejm” became characteristic of the Polish system. This state of affairs was reinforced by the union between the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, signed in July 1569. From then on, the King and the Sejm were the supreme bodies of the state known as the First Commonwealth of Both Nations (Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth).
The Polish Sejm functioned properly until the mid-17th century. However, in the course of time, the rigorous application of the rule of unanimity brought about adverse effects. Liberum veto, i.e. a deputy’s unconstrained right to veto, was the consequence of the observance of that rule. Nonetheless, one should keep that practice in its proper perspective. During times of political crisis, the Polish Sejm – vested with extensive powers – was no longer fulfilling its role and was losing authority. The crisis of the Polish parliamentary system was largely overcome, though, during the reign of King Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski (1764-1795). The Sejm carried out some political reforms, as testified by the legislation enacted by the Great Sejm (1788-1792). Its greatest achievement was the adoption on 3 May 1791, by the name of Government Act, of the first written, modern and comprehensive basic law of Poland. Its provisions ensured the dominance of the House of Deputies at the expense of the Senate. Beyond any doubt, the Sejm played the most important role in political life during the period of the First Commonwealth. This is also demonstrated by the calculation that between 1493 and 1793 Sejm debates lasted an impressive total of 44 years.
2. After the collapse of Poland in 1795 (Third Partition), the continuity of the Polish parliamentary institutions was interrupted. In all forms of Polish statehood of the post-partition era (1795-1918), it was the constitutional acts imposed by foreign rulers that determined the position of the parliament in the political system. The parliaments were given limited powers, with members elected by census suffrage. The organisation of the parliament was based to a greater extent on foreign legislation, while the Polish political tradition was taken into account only to a limited extent. A bicameral Sejm composed of the Senate (upper chamber) and the House of Deputies (lower chamber) was established in the Duchy of Warsaw (1807-1815) and in the Kingdom of Poland (1815-1830). The Insurrectionary Sejm (1831) played a special role as the supreme body of the short-lived sovereign Kingdom of Poland. In the Free City of Cracow (1815-1846), a unicameral Assembly of Representatives was established. In 1827-1845, a unicameral provincial Sejm existed in the Grand Duchy of Poznań. In the second half of the 19th century, only in autonomous Galicia (1861-1914) there functioned a unicameral National Sejm; it played a positive role in the development of Polish national institutions.
Since the second half of the 19th century, Poles were members of the parliaments of Austria, Prussia and Russia, forming Polish Clubs. Polish Deputies were elected to the Prussian Landtag (from 1848) and then to the Reichstag of the Second Reich (from 1871). Polish Deputies were members of the Austrian State Council (from 1867). Poles were also elected (from 1906) to the Russian State Duma (lower chamber) and to the State Council (upper chamber).
3. After the First World War, Poland, reborn, became a sovereign state, a real continuation of the former Commonwealth. The convocation of parliament – under the democratic electoral law of 1918 – was a symbol of Poland’s regaining of independence. As was emphatically put by Maciej Rataj: “There is Poland there, and so is the Sejm”. The Legislative Sejm elected in 1919 was a Constituent Assembly. Its resolution of 20 February 1919, which went down in history as the Small Constitution, proclaimed the principle of the Sejm’s sovereignty. On 17 March 1921, the first basic law of independent Poland was adopted: The Constitution of the Republic of Poland (later referred to as the March Constitution). It was one of the most democratic European constitutions enacted after the end of the First World War I. Poland’s political system was based on Montesquieu’s doctrine of separation of powers. Restored was the bicameral Sejm consisting of the Sejm and the Senate (of unequal positions). The respective provisions of the March 1921 Constitution gave the Sejm supremacy in the system of state institutions at the expense of the executive powers. An attempt to strengthen executive powers in 1926 (the August Amendment) proved to be too limited. Thus, work started on a new constitution. On 23 April 1935, the President of Poland signed the text of the Constitutional Act (popularly called the April Constitution) granting the head of the state the dominant position within the state. As regards the legislative power, for the second time in Polish history the Senate was given advantage over the Sejm.
On 2 September 1939, the Sejm held its last session, declaring readiness to fight the invader. On 2 November 1939, the President dissolved the Sejm and the Senate, which were to resume their activity within two months after the end of the Second World War; this never happened. The continuity of state institutions under conditions of wartime occupation by two foreign powers was maintained by the President of the Republic under the April Constitution. The only body which was not restored after the establishment of Polish legal authorities-in-exile was the parliament. The President limited himself to setting up the National Council (1939-1945), treated as a substitute for parliament in-exile. Meantime, in occupied Poland, the Council of National Unity was set up, functioning in 1944-1945 as the parliament of the Polish Underground State. That was the moment marking the end of the Second Republic which had existed since 1918.
4. After the Second World War, Poland became a part of the Eastern bloc (camp) which found itself in the Soviet sphere of influence. What followed was the formation of a new type of state, referred to as the People’s Poland (1944-1989). In addition to its other functions, the State National Council was an underground provisional parliament. The Manifesto of the Polish Committee of National Liberation, dated 22 July 1944, no doubt the key policy statement of the People’s Poland, heralded the convocation of the Legislative Sejm as a Constituent Assembly to be operating pursuant to the basic principles of the March Constitution. On the basis of the rigged referendum of 30 June 1946, the Senate was abolished. Free elections to the Legislative Sejm were rigged, too. The Small Constitution enacted on 19 February 1947 formally adhered to the doctrine of separation of powers. The Constitution of the People’s Republic of Poland adopted on 22 July 1952 – a Polish version of the Soviet Stalinist constitution of 1936 – replaced the doctrine of separation of powers with the uniform system of state power. The Constitution created a unicameral Sejm as – nominally – the highest organ of state power. It also legitimised the system of national councils, being set up in 1944 as local representative bodies. Neither the members of the Sejm nor those of the national councils were selected at democratic elections. It needs to be strongly emphasised that in the Polish People’s Republic the Sejm was not the main holder of political power. In practice, power was exercised by the leading organs of the ruling Polish United Workers’ Party. The performance of the 1st through 9th Sejm was widely criticised. The Sejm enjoyed some short spells when its position was strengthened but only to a limited extent.
5. Changes in Poland’s internal situation in the 1980s led to the Round Table Talks which ended in the signing of the famous Round Table Agreement on 5 April 1989. The Agreement spearheaded the evolutionary transformation of the country’s political system; independence was regained once again. The document Position on Political Reforms, dated 5 April 1989, provided grounds for amending the Constitution on 7 April 1989. The amended Constitution restored the office of the President of the Polish People’s Republic and the Senate – both to be elected in free and democratic elections. In the Sejm, the opposition was allocated 35% of the mandates. Thus the so called “contract” elections could not be fully democratic. The Sejm (first chamber) became superior to the Senate (second chamber). In addition, the institution of National Assembly was established, consisting of the Sejm and the Senate sitting jointly to elect the President of the Polish People’s Republic. A declaration of the Solidarity Citizens’ Committee heralded the prompt enactment of a new, democratic constitution and electoral law. As a result of Solidarity’s success in elections to the Sejm and the Senate, profound reforms of the political system were undertaken by adopting an amendment to the Constitution on 29 December 1989. In the Constitution, the Republic of Poland was defined as a democratic state ruled by law. As the provisional constitution lasted too long, it was decided to adopt a provisional regulation in the form of the so called Small Constitution. The President signed it on 17 October 1992. The Small Constitution regulated above all the relationship between the executive and legislative powers, on the basis of the doctrine of separation of powers. A bicameral parliament was maintained.
After long years of legislative work, on 2 April 1997, the National Assembly adopted The Constitution of the Republic of Poland. It entered into force on 17 October 1997. The new Constitution introduced a “rationalised” parliamentary-cabinet system in Poland. It is the first Constitution of the Third Republic. That was the first Constitution of the Third Republic. The act defined the position of the Sejm and the Senate within the system without using the term “parliament”. It adopted the doctrine of separation of powers, which provided for a balance between the legislative and executive powers. In practice the binding provisions of the Constitution ensure the supremacy of the legislative power. Both chambers are autonomous bodies, independent of each other, with their own powers. The Constitution retained the principle of bicameralism of the legislature. The Sejm and the Senate sitting jointly constitute the National Assembly. Characteristically, the new Constitution conferred very extensive powers on the Sejm. On the other hand, the powers of the Senate are limited, as in the Constitutions of 1921 and 1992.
Soon, in 2013, the Polish bicameral parliament will celebrate the 520th anniversary of its establishment.