Thursday, February 6, 2014

Start of POLISH ROUNDTABLE TALKS ~ February 6, 1989

The Polish Round Table Talks took place in Warsaw, Poland from February 6 to April 4, 1989. The government initiated the discussion with the banned trade union Solidarność and other opposition groups in an attempt to defuse growing social unrest.

Following the factory strikes of the early 1980s and the subsequent formation of the (then still underground) Solidarity movement under the leadership of Lech Wałęsa the political situation in Poland started relaxing somewhat. Despite an attempt by the government to crack down on the anti-Communist sentiments, the movement had gained too much momentum and it became impossible to hold off change anymore. In addition there was fear of a social explosion due to economic malaise and runaway inflation that had depressed Polish living standards and deepened public anger and frustration. By 1988 the authorities began serious talks with the opposition.

In September 1988, when a wave of strikes was coming to an end, a secret meeting was held which included amongst others the opposition leader Lech Wałęsa and Minister of Internal Affairs Czesław Kiszczak. They agreed on holding the so-called Round Table talks in the near future to plan out the course of action to be undertaken in the country. The Round Table talks began on February 6th 1989. They included the solidarity opposition faction and the coalition government faction. The talks were held in the Council of Ministers Office. The meetings were co-chaired by Lech Wałęsa and Czesław Kiszczak.

The Polish Communists, led by Gen. Jaruzelski, hoped to co-opt prominent opposition leaders into the ruling group without making major changes in the political power structure. In reality, the talks radically altered the shape of the Polish government and society. The events in Poland precipitated and gave momentum to the fall of the entire Communist bloc; the Yalta arrangement collapsed soon after the events in Poland.

The sessions were divided into three main work groups:
Political reform workgroup
Union pluralism and party pluralism workgroup
Economy and social issues workgroup

Specific issues were handled by these work groups. The meetings often ground to a halt. This was caused by a mutual distrust of the factions and an obvious unwillingness of the government faction to relinquish power. The most controversial questions were:
Pay raises and indexation
Future pluralist elections
The limit of the future president's competence
The limit of competence for the future Sejm and Senate
The access to mass communication media by opposition forces

A number of (radical) opposition organisations were quite opposed to the talks. They did not believe in the good intentions of the sitting government. Despite their fears a number of important documents were signed on April 5th at the conclusion of the sessions. These documents became known as the Round Table Agreement.

An agreement ("Round Table Agreement") was signed on April 4, 1989. The most important postulates, including those reflected in the April Novelization, were:
Legalization of independent trade unions
The introduction of the office of President (thereby annulling the power of the Communist party general secretary), who would be elected to a 6-year term
The formation of a Senate

As a result, real political power was vested in a newly created bicameral legislature and in a president who would be the chief executive. Solidarność became a legitimate and legal political party. Free election to 35% of the seats in Sejm and an entirely free election to the Senate was assured.

The election of 4 June 1989 brought a landslide victory to Solidarność: 99% of all the seats in the Senate and all of the 35% possible seats in Sejm. Jaruzelski, whose name was the only one the Communist Party allowed on the ballot for the presidency, won by just one vote in the National Assembly. The 65-35 division was soon abolished as well, after the first truly free Sejm elections.

The Round Table sessions were of momentous importance to the future political developments in Poland. They paved the way to a free and democratic Poland as well as the final abolition of communism in Poland. Poland has now truly entered a new chapter in its history.

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