550 years of Poland’s Parliamentary Traditions

On 13 July, Polish President Andrzej Duda initiated celebrations to mark the 550th anniversary of Poland’s parliamentary traditions. The President, during an address to the National Assembly, said,”I deeply believe that we, Poles, a great and wise civic nation, will know how to draw inspiration from 550 years of parliamentary heritage.”

The roots of parliamentary traditions in Poland, as well as elsewhere in Europe, derive from the medieval assemblies of the sovereign and the nobility. From the 12th century, they became the durable institutions of political life in Europe. Each country created its own name for the national assembly or parliament: Cortes, Estates-General, Corts, Diet, Bundestag. The Polish name for parliament is Sejm.

The gathering of the Polish nobles on July 13, 1468 in Koło prepared the first, according to Polish tradition, Great Sejm that debated in Piotrków later the same year.
One of the greatest acts of the Polish Sejm was the proclamation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth by the Act of the Union of Lublin in 1569 forming the largest and one of the most populous countries of 16th and 17th-century Europe. In the Commonwealth, which was a sort of “Eastern European Union”, political freedom and democracy became the essence of the state.

It should be noted that the Polish Sejm was able to promulgate a momentous attribute of the Polish state: tolerance of others. The first act of religious tolerance in Europe, the so-called Warsaw Confederation, was proclaimed by the Sejm in 1573, during the religious wars in Europe.

In Poland, a dominant tendency was that the epicentre of power was gradually moving away from the Crown to the Sejm. The role of the nobility in controlling power in Poland grew even more when hereditary dynastic rule expired after the last Jagellonian king, Zygmunt August, died in 1572 and Polish kings were elected by electorals Sejms.

The election of kings became a specific political institution in Poland which shaped Poland’s politics as well as parliamentary tradition up to the 18th century with grave consequences for the country. Chancellor Jan Zamoyski (1542-1605) once said about Golden Freedom: “The king reigns but does not govern.”

Poland was a precursor of the modern concepts of democracy, constitutional monarchy and federation. Its greatest achievement – a multicultural democracy – was not applicable in Europe at the time. At the end of the 18th century, Poland was partitioned by its neighbours: Russia, Prussia and Austria and ceased to exist on the map of Europe for 123 years (1795-1918).

Before the last partition of Poland, the May 3rd Constitution of 1791 was proclaimed. It was the first written constitution on the European continent and only the second after the American one (1787). In the consciousness of Poles, it remains a symbol of the country’s independence.

Between 1795 and 1918 the Polish lands remained under foreign rule. The Poles were trying to preserve and pass over to the next generations Polish tradition, language, religion, attachment to democratic values opposing passively or actively the occupants. This heritage would later contribute to the rise of the Solidarity Movement in Poland in the 20th century.

An exhibition on Poland’s parliamentary traditions was presented by the Polish Institute in New Delhi in June 2018. It is geared towards schools and universities.