“The English think they are free. They are free only during the election of members of parliament.” The words of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the sort of slightly disparaging remark one might expect of a French philosopher when gazing wistfully across the Channel. But the point he makes is a good one: when it comes to measuring freedom, elections rank pretty high on the agenda. Thus, to Poland, where 4th June marks the thirtieth anniversary of the first free or, rather partially free, elections after the Second World War, and the beginning of the end of totalitarian Communist rule.
On 4th June 1989, partially free elections were held to the lower house of Poland’s parliament, the Sejm – 35 per cent of the seats were democratically contested with the rest reserved for the communist party and related groups and individuals – and completely free elections to the upper house, the Senate. The elections saw a resounding victory for Solidarity which won all the seats available to it in the Sejm, and all but one seat in the freely contested Senate.
The election was seen as the key event that triggered a domino effect across the region, which culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall – for decades a symbol and the reality of the division between western Europe and communist eastern Europe – later that same year.
The 4th June elections followed the Round Table Agreement which had been signed on 4th April that year. The Round Table talks had begun 6th February between the solidarity opposition and the government and were jointly chaired by Lech Wałęsa and minister of internal affairs Czesław Kiszcak. The most important results of the agreement were the legalisation of independent trade unions, the introduction of the office of an elected president and the formation of the senate.
Needless to say, the Round Table talks have remained controversial to this day, with the suggestion that they were merely window dressing and that the real talks on power sharing had taken place earlier in secret to ensure that the communists retained the advantage behind the scenes. This is something of which the Law and Justice party continues to make political capital as it seeks, as it sees it, finally to rid Poland of the last vestiges of communist influence in the state apparatus. Indeed, it may be argued that the first truly free elections did not take place until 1991.
Be that as it may, the Round Table talks and the elections were of momentous importance to the future political developments in Poland, and they did pave the way to a free and democratic country and the final abolition of communism in Poland. As president Duda said of the elections of 4th June, speaking in parliament to mark the occasion, they were “a great triumph that changed the world” and triggered a seismic shift that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the break-up of the Soviet Union.
The key message is, of course, that however imperfect the beginning, it’s the journey and the destination that count, and few would convincingly ague that Poland is not immensely better off as a democratic nation. For a democracy to function effectively, everybody has to participate and is perhaps surprising, that having been denied meaningful votes for so long, the voter turnouts in Polish elections have been comparatively low.
It is encouraging therefore, that the turnout for the recent elections to the European parliament was a record 45.68 per cent. This compares to only 23.83 per cent in the 2014 European parliamentary elections and 50.92 per centin the 2015 Polish parliamentary elections. It augers well for the next Polish parliamentary elections in the autumn.
No doubt many voters are disillusioned with politics and politicians and think that their individual vote will make no difference, but this is a mistake. Every vote does count, and if the events of 1989 mean anything at all, it is that the right to vote is something valuable, which had to be fought for, and which may be lost if taken for granted. Whoever actually originally said: “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”, was correct. And voting is vigilance.