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The Warsaw Voice » Other » June 3, 2009
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June 4, 1989: First (Partly) Free Elections
June 3, 2009 By W.Ż.    
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The June 4, 1989 elections were the first partly free elections in Poland after the end of World War II.

In the wake of the elections, the communists lost their decades-long monopoly on power that began in the late 1940s. Commenting on the elections, popular actress Joanna Szczepkowska announced on television, "Today, communism has ended in Poland." While some of her contemporaries called her prediction premature, 20 years later it turned out that Szczepkowska had been right.

On June 4, 1989, voters went to the polls to elect members of the lower and upper houses of the Polish parliament, the Sejm and the Senate. The elections were not fully democratic. Under the election law at the time, the opposition could win no more than 35 percent of the seats in the lower house. The remaining 65 percent, or 299 seats, was reserved for the ruling Polish United Workers' Party (PZPR) and its two satellite parties as well as three religious and social organizations controlled by the communists.

The distribution of these 299 seats in the 460-member lower house was decided in advance: 173 seats were reserved for the PZPR, 76 for the United Peasants' Party (ZSL), 27 for the Democratic Party (SD), 10 for the PAX Association, eight for the Christian-Social Union (UChS), and five for the Polish Catholic and Social Association (PZKS). The remaining 161 seats were to be filled in a free election.

In contrast, the election to the Senate, the newly established 100-member upper house, was fully free.

Wałęsa campaign
The Citizens' Committee, which coordinated the election campaign of the democratic Solidarity opposition, fielded 161 candidates for the Sejm and 100 for the Senate. Each candidate had a picture taken in the company of Lech Wałęsa and the photographs were placed on campaign posters. There was also a poster encouraging Solidarity supporters to go to the polls. Inspired by Fred Zinnemann's popular 1952 western film High Noon, the poster featured Gary Cooper with his marshal's star and the Solidarity logo above. The inscription on the poster read, "High noon, June 4, 1989." Instead of a gun, the actor had a ballot in his hand ready to be cast into the ballot box.

Communist tricks
In contrast to all later elections in Poland, on June 4, 1989, people cast their votes for individual candidates rather than political parties. Voters had to leave the name of the candidate they supported unmarked and cross off the names of all the remaining hopefuls. The election lists included only the names of the candidates, with no information about the parties or campaign committees they represented. Experts say the communists arranged the lists in that way in order to confuse voters. They hoped that some voters would not recognize the opposition candidates on the lists. But during the several-week election campaign, the names of the opposition candidates were well publicized and the voters had no problem recognizing them.

The result of the June 4 elections came as a shock to the communists-the opposition won by a landslide, gaining 160 of the 161 seats they could win in the lower house and 92 seats in the 100-member Senate. The turnout was 62 percent.

In the second round on June 18, the opposition won one seat in the lower house and seven seats in the Senate. As a result, the opposition eventually took all the seats available in a free election in the lower house and 99 seats in the Senate. The only senator from outside the Wałęsa camp was businessman Henryk Stokłosa, an independent candidate.

Shock for regime
On June 23, deputies and senators elected on the Solidarity ticket set up the Citizens' Parliamentary Group, the first formal organization of the democratic opposition in parliament.

The communists, who had ruled Poland for over four decades, were stunned by the outcome of the elections. Minutes of meetings held by the communist party's leading authorities soon after June 4 show how painful the defeat was to the communists, especially as they had been sure of their victory until the last minute and had even worried about international reaction should the opposition suffer too crushing a defeat.

Most political scientists agree that the communist party lost its capability to govern the country after the election results were announced. It struggled to retain at least some influence on the course of events in the country.

On July 19, 1989, former communist party leader Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski became president. He was elected in a parliamentary vote in which both houses took part. Jaruzelski, who was the architect of martial law in Poland in 1981, was elected by a majority of just one vote.

After their election defeat, the communists were unable to form a government of their own because Wałęsa won over some of their former allies from the United Peasants' Party and the Democratic Party. In this situation, a coalition government was formed Aug. 24, 1989 with Solidarity leading light Tadeusz Mazowiecki as prime minister. His government embarked on far-reaching changes in Poland based on democratizing the political system and reforming the economy. The latter reforms, initiated by deputy prime minister and finance minister Leszek Balcerowicz, were dubbed shock therapy. The communists filled only a few posts in the government, including those of interior and defense ministers.
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