Poland was the most rebellious of the Soviet-bloc countries, with mass protests in 1956, 1968, 1970–71, 1976, and 1980–81. The society was heavily influenced by the Catholic Church, and the memory of the Polish pope, John Paul II, remains very strong.
After the political changes of 1990, Poland made fast progress toward achieving a market economy and a democratic government and making Polish democracy work effectively by civic engagement in public discourses.
Roundtable talks on Poland’s first free elections took place in 1988–89. In April 1989 the communist leadership agreed with the Solidarity leadership on competitive elections, where just 35 percent of the seats were open to genuine competition.
During the following presidential elections, in November 1990, Lech Walesa—a former electrician, shipyard worker, and leader of the opposition since 1980—became the first democratically elected president of Poland. Later on, the parliamentary elections were held with the participation of over 100 political parties. The country saw a rough democratic start, and elections were declared again in 1993.
At that time, the successor of the communist party, the Alliance of the Democratic Left (SLD), received the largest share of the votes. In November 1995, in the second presidential elections, Aleksander Kwasniewski defeated Walesa and became the second president of democratic Poland.
The leading political issue of the last years of the 1990s was negotiations with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Poland joined the defense organization in 2000. During subsequent years, talks with the European Union (EU) regarding the Polish accession received much attention. Poland joined the EU in May 2004.
In the presidential elections of 2000 and the parliamentary elections of 2001, the successor of the Communist Party, the SLD, won. However, that government lost popularity rapidly after it failed to fulfill promises to upgrade the road network of the country and to undertake a profound reform of the national health system.
In addition, these years saw corruption scandals. Right after Poland’s admission to the EU, the cabinet resigned and a new cabinet was formed, with Marek Belka as prime minister.
Secrecy in the governing party and scandals contributed to the outcome of the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2005, when the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) and Citizens Platform (PO) became the largest parties in the Polish parliament, the Sejm.
PiS leader Jarosław Kaczynski declined the option of becoming prime minister because his twin brother, Lech Kaczynski, was still in the race for the presidential seat. Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz was nominated for that post; however, Jarosław Kaczynski is still considered one of the most influential persons in contemporary Polish politics.
Lech Kaczynski did win the presidential election. The main emphasis of his presidency was on combining modernization with tradition and Christianity. The influence of the Kaczynski might increase European skepticism and the focus on Polish Catholic traditions in the near future.
After that time, Poland was regarded as one of the most successful transition economies in eastern and central Europe. The country’s GDP per capita rose from 31 percent of the EU average in 1992 to 41 percent by the end of the 1990s.
One of the challenges of the economic policy was transforming the excessive and poor investment inheritance from the command economy, which was achieved by injecting new technologies into old plants. In addition, most industry subsidies were removed, and the market was opened up to international cooperation.
Between the early 1990s and the mid-2000s, the country received over $50 billion in direct foreign investment. With the collapse of COMECON in 1990, Poland had to reorient its trade, and in few years Germany had become its most important trade partner, followed by other EU countries.
Despite all of Poland’s economic successes, there has been an unusually complicated situation in Polish agriculture and rural areas. Poland was the only country in the Soviet bloc whose farmland remained for the most part in private hands.
The farmers’ dramatically low income levels affected their farms in terms of production and development. Over half of the farms produce only for their own needs, with minimal commercial sales. Despite its small farms, Poland is the leading producer of potatoes and rye in Europe and a large producer of sugar beets.
Unlike the dramatic developments in Polish politics and economics, its society changed at a different pace. The political transformation of 1989–90 was the culmination of radical social change, which profoundly affected Polish society. New social movements and the fundamentals of a civic society were in place by the late 1980s.
Disappointment in the society in the early 1990s was in large part due to high expectations of the rapid political and economic changes, which exceeded the possibilities of the weak economy. A significant share of Polish society is Euro-skeptic, opposing globalization and stressing traditional national and Catholic values.
Polish cultural life flourished even under communist rule, but the political and economic changes opened up new possibilities for generations of artists. Polish jazz, with its special national flavor, is known worldwide, and the film industry of the country has been one of the most important in Europe.
Polish avant-garde theater, along with various high-culture music festivals and art exhibitions, are world famous, and Polish popular culture has been receiving growing attention and sponsorship within the country as well.