Academic journal article East European Quarterly

Competing Visions of Polish Parliament, 1989-1993

Academic journal article East European Quarterly

Competing Visions of Polish Parliament, 1989-1993

Article excerpt

The simultaneous emergence of democratic governing institutions in the formerly communist countries of Central Europe provides fertile ground for a comparative analysis of institutional development. All these countries shared an experience of Communist Party rule with remarkable commonalities in governing principles and state-society relations, and all underwent a major transformation of the institutions and legitimacy of the state in 1989. Much of the recent literature on democratization emphasizes the common processes of bargaining among elites in the shift from communism to new democratic institutions.(1)

However, in the cases of Central Europe, elites in different countries may have experienced Communist Party rule differently, and brought different visions of what democracy and democratic institutions mean to the transition bargaining table. While the collapse of Communist Party rule left old and new elites with the options of drawing on Western models of governing structures, the West was not the only source of alternatives. Each of these countries has long traditions of relations between state and society, between the rulers and the ruled. Indeed, many have quite legitimate "foundings" prior to the 1989 revolutions. Elites may come to the drawing board with a wide variety of interpretations of democracy, parliament, representation and even the meaning of the communist era. We must take into consideration the possibility that, rather than being determined by the shared experience of Soviet occupation, this transitionary period is influenced by several factors, such as commonly-held notions of the role of the liberal state, and that these factors may in turn influence choices about constitutional arrangements.

This article examines the manner in which competing visions of the identity of Polish parliament functioned between 1989 and 1993. In post-Communist Poland, the parliament, or Sejm, changed substantially in terms of its authorized powers, its role in representation and its prestige in the eyes of the public during this period of executive-legislative conflict. In the course of the debate over the relative powers of president and parliament, elites invoked powerful historical models of governance to bolster their arguments. These rhetorical strategies had an important role in shaping the context of institutional change, that is, in structuring the way alternatives were perceived and judged.

The structure of executive-legislative relations in Poland

Poland began its transformation in 1989 with a dominant parliament and a weak executive. By 1993, however, the status and power of parliament had declined, and the president's power had increased substantially. October 1992 was a turning point, during which the "Small Constitution" was ratified by the parliament, granting the president and the prime minister considerable prerogatives.(2) Poland ended up with a semi-presidential system, distinguishing it from other Central European countries going through similar transformations.

The 460-member Sejm is the lower house of a bicameral legislature. It is responsible for debating, amending, and passing legislation, as well as for votes of confidence or no-confidence in the prime minister's government, while the 100-member Senat, the second house, typically ratifies the Sejm's actions.(3) There have been three sets of parliamentary elections since the beginning of Poland's democratization process, and one could say there have been three different parliaments as well. Each parliament has differed from its predecessor in terms of stability, representation, efficiency, legitimacy, prestige in the eyes of the public, and powers, both formal and informal. This article focuses on the 1991-1993 Sejm because it was during this period that several different arguments about what the institution of parliament should be gained dominance.

After the first fully free elections in 1991 the Sejm went through a period of extreme fragmentation, in part due to the large number of parties that gained seats through the proportional representation electoral system. …

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