The noble democracy of the First Polish Republic is a lesson for the whole of Europe

Regional assembly in a church/Jan Piotr Norblin/Wikipedia/CC

From some Western politicians, voices can be heard from time to time that Poland has a younger democracy and of worse standards, so it should not be treated in the same way as Western democracies. Meanwhile, in reality, democratic traditions in Poland are very old. The participation of Polish citizens in public life dates back to the Middle Ages, when, under the Privilege of Košice (1374), the nobility and city representatives began to influence the election of the ruler. It was also then that the state representation was born, which in the following centuries will gain in importance.

After the unification of the Polish state (after the division of districts) in the 15th century, nationwide meetings and provincial assemblies dealing with legislation were systematically used as a method of settling state affairs. When, apart from dignitaries, the nobility began to attend the congresses, they transformed into parliaments called general assemblies. The king had the right to convene a general seym – this form of parliamentarism dates back to the beginning of the 15th century. The principle that each extraordinary tax required the consent of the states contributed significantly to the development of state assemblies. The development of seyms and regional assemblies was also favored by periods of interregnum and the consolidation – from the appointment of Władysław Jagiełło to the throne in 1386 through the congress in Lublin – of the system of elections made by the general seym. The latter consisted of clerical and secular dignitaries who were part of the royal council, who later became part of the upper house, i.e. the senate. On the other hand, at the provincial parliament, the division ran on three levels. There was a group of dignitaries, the next was a group of land officials who, until the establishment of the institution of deputies, acted as representatives of the lands, and the third group was the nobility who did not hold offices, representatives of city councils and cathedral chapters.

The general seym could be attended by all the nobility, but over time they decided to send their deputies to the sessions, who, provided with appropriate instructions and mandate, acted as delegates. The seyms played an important role not only in the area of taxes, but also legislation and issuing privileges for the nobility. Even then, the seym could deliberate and adopt resolutions also in the king’s absence, and its delegates often took part in concluding international agreements.

A separate role was played by land assemblies, which were formed from the end of the 14th century and consisted of two members: the council of lords and the general nobility. They represented the interests of the nobility and operated parallel to provincial and general seyms (in the 16th century, the general seym became bicameral).

Another form of citizen participation in public life from the fourteenth century were confederations, established for a specific purpose and of a temporary nature, which began to disappear as the state assemblies developed, only to be reborn again in the seventeenth century. This commitment led to the creation of the systemic model of the Republic of Nobles, which was a type of state monarchy, so characteristic that apart from the monarch, only the nobility participated in the exercise of power, which subordinated other classes and monopolized appointments to higher church dignities. At the same time, absolute monarchy developed in many European countries.

Three and a half centuries of the Republic of Nobles went down in history as the “golden ages”, although they were divided into two stages: the nobles democracy, which later turned into a magnate oligarchy. The democracy of the nobility, which lasted until the mid-sixteenth century, was an expression of the Polish nobility’s aspirations to strengthen its social and political position. At that time, there was an increase in the importance of land assemblies, which in the second half of the 15th century increasingly entered the sphere of government. The deputies delegated by the regional assemblies to the general seym relatively quickly formed a separate chamber of deputies. From 1505, the consent of the land deputies was necessary to establish new laws. The end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century saw the gradual strengthening of the position of the magnates, which, however, had no impact on the systemic model of the state.

Establishment of the chamber of deputies

Initially, the chamber of deputies represented the regional assemblies, thanks to which senators also participated in the elections of deputies, however, from the mid-sixteenth century, deputies were elected by the nobility themselves. Their number was customary: larger voivodeships delegated 6 deputies to the general parliament, smaller ones – 2 each, and small lands – 1 deputy each. They received the so-called digesta, which is the equivalent of modern parliamentary remunerations – first from the royal treasury, and later – in the 16th century – these costs were borne by the regional assemblies. From the mid-sixteenth century, the seym consisted of three estates: the king, the senate and the chamber of deputies. In order to adopt a resolution and issue a constitution, general consent was required, which was expressed by the lack of objections, and the deputies were obliged to act in accordance with the instructions. Sometimes, however, decisions were made by majority vote, ignoring the votes of a few opponents.

The Senate operated in a slightly different way, where problems were not put to a vote, but each senator expressed his opinion and on this basis the king or chancellor formulated a conclusion. Unanimity was not required, but generally the monarch favored the opinion of the majority.

From the end of the 16th century, the system of majority decision-making in the seym began to break down and unanimity was increasingly demanded. In turn, the instructions to deputies began to become more and more detailed. It happened that as a condition for the resolution of the seym, the prior adoption of the demands of the regional assembly was made, which paralyzed the entire system. This, along with the rebellion seyms, led to the crisis of the seym in the second half of the 17th century and to the revival of direct democracy – deliberations of the general muster.

The tasks of the seym, apart from passing taxes, included listening to foreign deputies and setting the direction of foreign policy. The seym also exercised control over the government. The activities of the king, on the other hand, were controlled by resident senators. In principle, from the end of the 16th century, the center of gravity of government in the state was focused on the seym. The latter was also responsible for concluding peace treaties and alliances. The control of the seym over the king and ministers was also increased.

Resident senators

The beginning of the 17th century was a further limitation of royal power. Then the function of senators-residents is appointed. Initially, they were appointed every two years in the number of 16, but around the middle of the century their number was increased to 28. From 1717, the king was obliged by a special constitution to carry out their recommendations, although in practice – due to the disappearance of the institution of senators-resident – there was no it matters more. Recommendations to the king, however, began to be issued by the senate councils – this took place in the form of resolutions that were written down and read out at the beginning of each seym, which was to increase the seym’s control over the king.

The principle of unanimity in the 17th century gave rise to the “liberum veto” or “free I do not allow”, enabling one deputy to annul the seym and all its resolutions. However, while this mechanism was conceived as a defense of noble freedom, its abuse by both magnates and agents of foreign powers led to a crisis of the seym institution and “decentralization of sovereignty” at the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th century. Behind the façade of the nobility’s democracy, the real power was exercised by magnate coteries, which very quickly resulted in the degeneration of political institutions, disregard for the law and anarchism of public life.

From the mid-18th century, there was a period of reform towards a constitutional monarchy. The resistance to them, coupled with the growing power of the neighboring countries, resulted in the partitions of Poland. However, before Poland disappeared from the map of Europe for 123 years, it adopted the second in the world and the first in Europe constitution – the Constitution of May 3rd.

Constitution of May 3rd.

The Government Act, called the Constitution of May 3rd, was intended to improve governance in Poland. It was very modern for those times. It guaranteed the nobility “all liberties, liberties, prerogatives and priority in private and public life” as “immovable”. It secured her personal inviolability and property as well as the equality of the nobility. From then on, nobility was to be linked not only with birth, but also with land ownership and social function. The new law guaranteed to property-owning townspeople inviolability without a court verdict, the acquisition of landed property and access to administrative and judicial offices. The constitution took care of the laws and government of the peasants and ensured personal freedom for foreigners and fugitives who wanted to return to the country. What’s more, the authors of the Constitution of May 3rd departed from the concept of a “noble nation” in favor of a democratic concept of the nation, i.e. one that covers all social strata. In Art. IX it was written that “all citizens are defenders of national integrity and liberties”, which had its direct impact during the 1794 insurrection.

The seym was to remain bicameral. Its lower house consisted of 204 deputies elected at the assemblies, and the upper house – 132 senators. The constitution reduced the king’s legislative powers and limited the role of the senate. For the first time, deputies to the seym were not only representatives of the nobility, but “representatives of the entire nation”. The principle of the seym’s term of office was also introduced, while the liberum veto was abolished and majority voting was established. Moreover, the principle of releasing the king from personal responsibility for governance and the responsibility of ministers before the seym, modeled on relations in England, was also applied. The executive power was to rest in the hands of the king and the so-called of the Guardians of the Laws, composed of five ministers. The Constitution also reformed the judiciary by reorganizing the courts and streamlining their operation.

The reformist ambitions were put to an end by the Russian invasion and then by the partitions. The short period of existence of the Duchy of Warsaw, which is only seven years, is a limitation of the division into estates and the granting of political rights, including passive and active electoral rights. The constitution of the Duchy of Warsaw abolished peasants’ serfdom, ensuring their personal freedom and equality before the law. The seym of the Duchy consisted of the Chamber of Deputies (100 members of the nobility and 66 deputies) and the senate, but it had no control powers in relation to the government. Legislation on systemic, political and administrative matters belonged to the king. The senate, which had more limited powers than the French senate, had control over whether the chamber of deputies complied with the constitution and the legislative procedure, and the validity of elections. The king had the right to dissolve both chambers in a situation where they opposed the solutions he pushed through.

The next constitution was written under the dictates of the partitioning powers and created a fiction of Polish statehood. In fact, Poland was not to regain independence until the end of World War I. The example of the First Republic of Poland clearly shows how long the traditions of Polish parliamentarism and Polish democracy are – definitely longer than in many Western European countries. Their roots lie in the love of freedom and equality, i.e. values whose completely unaware heir was Robert Schuman, from whose thoughts contemporary Europe is increasingly moving away. Polish democracy is not “worse” in any way, but the aggression of its neighbors caused breaks in its development. Therefore, instead of slandering Poles, Western politicians should rather appreciate their efforts that, despite the partitions, and then another loss of independence as a result of World War II, after 1989, Poland was able to reach for its centuries-old traditions of parliamentarism and re-create a democracy that still functions today.

Anna Wiejak

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