The Sejm of the Republic of Poland ([sɛjm] ( listen); Polish: Sejm Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej) is the lower house of the Polish parliament. It consists of 460 deputies (posłowie, literally "envoys", in Polish) elected by universal ballot and is presided over by a speaker called the "Marshal of the Sejm of the Republic of Poland" (Marszałek Sejmu Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej). In the Kingdom of Poland, "Sejm" referred to the entire three-chamber parliament of Poland, comprising the lower house (the Chamber of Envoys; Polish: Izba Poselska), the upper house (the Senate; Polish: Senat) and the King. It was thus a three-estate parliament. Since the Second Polish Republic (1918–1939), "Sejm" has referred only to the lower house of the parliament; the upper house is called the Senat Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej ("Senate of the Republic of Poland").
"Sejm" stems from an Old Slavic word meaning "gathering". Its origin was the King's Councils (wiece), which gained power during the time of Poland's fragmentation (1146–1295). The 1182 Sejm in Łęczyca (known as the 'First Sejm') was the most notable of these councils, in that for the first time in Poland's history it established laws constraining the power of the ruler. It forbade arbitrary sequestration of supplies in the countryside and takeover of bishopric lands after the death of a bishop. These early Sejms were not a regular event, they convened at the King's behest. After the 1493 Sejm in Piotrków, it became a regularly convening body, to which indirect elections were held every two years. The bicameral system was also established there. The Sejm now comprised two chambers: the Senat (Senate) of 81 bishops and other dignitaries; and the Chamber of Envoys, made up of 54 envoys elected by smaller local sejmik (assemblies of landed nobility) in each of the Kingdom's provinces. At the time, Poland's nobility, which accounted for around 10% of the state's population (then the highest amount in Europe), was becoming particularly influential, and with the eventual development of the Golden Liberty, the Sejm's powers increased dramatically.
Over time, the envoys in the lower chamber grew in number and power as they pressed the king for more privileges. The Sejm eventually became even more active in supporting the goals of the privileged classes when the King ordered that the landed nobility and their estates (peasants) be drafted into military service. After the Union of Lublin in 1569, the Kingdom of Poland became, through personal union with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and thus the Sejm was supplemented with new envoys from among the Lithuanian nobility. This "Commonwealth of Both Nations" ensured that the state of affairs surrounding the three-estates system continued, with the Sejm, Senate and King forming the estates and supreme deliberating body of the state. In the first few decades of the 16th century, the Senate had established its precedence over the Sejm; however, from the mid-1500s onwards, the Sejm became a very powerful representative body of the Szlachta ("middle nobility"). Its chambers reserved the final decisions in legislation, taxation, budget, and treasury matters (including military funding), foreign policy, and the confirment of nobility. The 1573 Warsaw Confederation saw the nobles of the Sejm officially sanction and guarantee religious tolerance in Commonwealth territory, ensuring a refuge for those fleeing the ongoing Reformation and Counter-Reformation wars in Europe. Until the end of the 16th century, unanimity was not required, and the majority-voting process was the most commonly used system for voting. Later, with the rise of the Polish magnates and their increasing power, the unanimity principle was re-introduced with the institution of the nobility's right of liberum veto (Latin: "I freely forbid"). Additionally, if the envoys were unable to reach a unanimous decision within six weeks (the time limit of a single session), deliberations were declared void and all previous acts passed by that Sejm were annulled. From the mid-17th century onward, any objection to a Sejm resolution, by either an envoy or a senator, automatically caused the rejection of other, previously approved resolutions. This was because all resolutions passed by a given session of the Sejm formed a whole resolution, and, as such, was published as the annual "constituent act" of the Sejm, e.g. the "Anno Domini 1667" act. In the 16th century, no single person or small group dared to hold up proceedings, but, from the second half of the 17th century, the liberum veto was used to virtually paralyze the Sejm, and brought the Commonwealth to the brink of collapse. The liberum veto was finally abolished with the adoption of Poland's 3rd May Constitution in 1791, a piece of legislation which was passed as the "Government Act", and for which the Sejm required four years to propagate and adopt. The constitution's acceptance, and the possible long-term consequences it may have had, is arguably the reason for which the powers of Austria-Hungary, Russia and Prussia then decided to partition the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, thus putting an end to over 300 years of Polish parliamentary continuity. It is estimated that between 1493 and 1793, a Sejm was held 240 times, the total debate-time sum of which was 44 years.
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After the fall of the Duchy of Warsaw, which existed as a Napoleonic client state between 1807 and 1815, and its short-lived Sejm of the Duchy of Warsaw, the Sejm of Congress Poland was established in the Kongresówka (Congress Poland) of Russia; it was composed of the king (the Russian emperor), the upper house (Senate), and the lower house (Chamber of Envoys). Overall, during the period from 1795 until the re-establishment of Poland's sovereignty in 1918, little power was actually held by any Polish legislative body and the occupying powers of Russia, Prussia (later united Germany) and Austria-Hungary propagated legislation for their own respective formerly-Polish territories at a national level.
The Chamber of Envoys, despite its name, consisted not only of 77 envoys (sent by local assemblies) from the hereditary nobility, but also of 51 deputies, elected by the non-noble population. All deputies were covered by Parliamentary immunity, with each individual serving for a term of office of six years, with half of the deputies being elected every two years. Candidates for deputy had to be able to read and write, and have a certain amount of wealth. The legal voting age was 21, except for those citizens serving in the military, the personnel of which were not allowed to vote. Parliamentary sessions were initially convened every two years, and lasted for (at least) 30 days. However, after many clashes between liberal deputies and conservative government officials, sessions were later called only four times (1818, 1820, 1826, and 1830, with the last two sessions being secret). The Sejm had the right to call for votes on civil and administrative legal issues, and, with permission from the king, it could also vote on matters related to the fiscal policy and the military. It had the right to exercise control over government officials, and to file petitions. The 64-member Senate on the other hand, was composed of voivodes and kasztelans (both types of provincial governors), Russian "princes of the blood", and nine bishops. It acted as the Parliamentary Court, had the right to control "citizens' books", and had similar legislative rights as did the Chamber of Deputies.
In the Free City of Cracow (1815–1846), a unicameral Assembly of Representatives was established, and from 1827, a unicameral provincial sejm existed in the Grand Duchy of Poznań. Poles were elected to and represented the majority in both of these legislatures; however, they were largely powerless institutions and exercised only very limited power. After numerous failures in securing legislative sovereignty in the early 19th century, many Poles simply gave up trying to attain a degree of independence from their foreign master-states. In the Austrian partition, a relatively powerless Sejm of the Estates operated until the time of the Spring of Nations. After this, in the mid to late 19th century, only in autonomous Galicia (1861–1914) was there a unicameral and functional National Sejm, the Sejm of the Land. It is recognised today as having played a major and overwhelming positive role in the development of Polish national institutions.
In the second half of the 19th century, Poles were able to become members of the parliaments of Austria, Prussia and Russia, where they formed Polish Clubs. Deputies of Polish nationality were elected to the Prussian Landtag from 1848, and then to the German Empire's Reichstag from 1871. Polish Deputies were members of the Austrian State Council (from 1867), and from 1906 were also elected to the Russian Imperial State Duma (lower chamber) and to the State Council (upper chamber).
After the First World War and re-establishment of Polish independence, the convocation of parliament, under the democratic electoral law of 1918, became an enduring symbol of the new state's wish to demonstrate and establish continuity with the 300-year Polish parliamentary traditions established before the time of the partitions. Maciej Rataj emphatically paid tribute to this with the phrase: "There is Poland there, and so is the Sejm".
During the interwar period of Poland's independence, the first Legislative Sejm of 1919, a Constituent Assembly, passed the Small Constitution of 1919, which introduced a parliamentary republic and proclaimed the principle of the Sejm's sovereignty. This was then strengthened, in 1921, by the March Constitution, one of the most democratic European constitutions enacted after the end of World War I. The constitution established a political system which was based on Montesquieu's doctrine of separation of powers, and which restored the bicameral Sejm consisting of a lower house (to which alone the name of "Sejm" was from then on applied) and an upper house, the Senate. In 1919, Roza Pomerantz-Meltzer, a member of the Zionist party, became the first woman ever elected to the Sejm.
The legal content of the March Constitution allowed for Sejm supremacy in the system of state institutions at the expense of the executive powers, thus creating a parliamentary republic out of the Polish state. An attempt to strengthen executive powers in 1926 (through the August Amendment) proved too limited and largely failed in helping avoid legislative grid-lock which had ensued as a result of too-great parliamentary power in a state which had numerous diametrically-opposed political parties sitting in its legislature. In 1935, the parliamentary republic was weakened further when, by way of, Józef Piłsudski's May Coup, the president was forced to sign the April Constitution of 1935, an act through which the head of state assumed the dominant position in legislating for the state and the Senate increased its power at the expense of the Sejm.
On 2 September 1939, the Sejm held its final pre-war session, during which it declared Poland's readiness to defend itself against invading German forces. On 2 November 1939, the President dissolved the Sejm and the Senate, which were then, according to plan, to resume their activity within two months after the end of the Second World War; this, however, never happened. During wartime, the National Council (1939–1945) was established to represent the legislature as part of the Polish Government in Exile. Meanwhile, in Nazi-occupied Poland, the Council of National Unity was set up; this body functioned from 1944 to 1945 as the parliament of the Polish Underground State. With the cessation of hostilities in 1945, and subsequent rise to power of the Communist-backed Provisional Government of National Unity, the Second Polish Republic legally ceased to exist.
The Sejm in the Polish People's Republic had 460 deputies throughout most of its history. At first, this number was declared to represent one deputy per 60,000 citizens (425 were elected in 1952), but, in 1960, as the population grew, the declaration was changed: The constitution then stated that the deputies were representative of the people and could be recalled by the people, but this article was never used, and, instead of the "five-point electoral law", a non-proportional, "four-point" version was used. Legislation was passed with majority voting.
Under the 1952 Constitution, the Sejm was defined as "the highest organ of State authority" in Poland, as well as "the highest spokesman of the will of the people in town and country." On paper, it was vested with great lawmaking and oversight powers. For instance, it was empowered with control over "the functioning of other organs of State authority and administration," and ministers were required to answer questions posed by deputies within seven days. In practice, it did little more than rubber-stamp decisions already made by the Communist Polish United Workers Party and its executive bodies. This was standard practice in nearly all Communist regimes due to the principle of democratic centralism.
The Sejm also chose a Prezydium ("presiding body") from among its members; the marshall of which was always a member of the United People's Party. In its preliminary session, the Sejm also nominated the Prime Minister, the Council of Ministers of Poland, and members of the State Council. It also chose many other government officials, including the head of the Supreme Chamber of Control and members of the State Tribunal and the Constitutional Tribunal, as well as the Ombudsman (the last three bodies of which were created in the 1980s).
When the Sejm was not in session, the State Council had the power to issue decrees that had the force of law. However, those decrees had to be approved by the Sejm at its next session.
The Senate of Poland was abolished by the Polish people's referendum in 1946, after which the Sejm became the sole legislative body in Poland. Even though the Sejm was largely subservient to the Communist party, one brave deputy, Romuald Bukowski (an independent) voted against the imposition of martial law in 1982.
After the end of communism in 1989, the Senate was reinstated as the upper house of a bicameral national assembly, while the Sejm became the lower house. The Sejm is now composed of 460 deputies elected by proportional representation every four years.
Between 7 and 19 deputies are elected from each constituency using the d'Hondt method (with one exception, in 2001, when the Sainte-Laguë method was used), their number being proportional to their constituency's population. Additionally, a threshold is used, so that candidates are chosen only from parties that gained at least 5% of the nationwide vote (candidates from ethnic-minority parties are exempt from this threshold).
The Sejm building in Warsaw
|Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS)||5,711,687||37.58||7.69||
235 / 460
61 / 100
|Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO)||3,661,474||24.09||15.09||
138 / 460
34 / 100
42 / 460
|Modern (Nowoczesna, .N)||1,155,370||7.60||
28 / 460
|United Left (Zjednoczona Lewica, ZL)||1,147,102||7.55||11.26||—[b]||67||—|
|Polish People's Party (Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe, PSL)||779,875||5.13||3.23||
16 / 460
1 / 100
|Together (Partia Razem)||550,349||3.62||—||—|
|Committee of Zbigniew Stonoga (KWW ZS)||42,731||0.28||—||—|
|German Minority (Mniejszość Niemiecka, MN)||27,530||0.18||0.01||
1 / 460
|United for Silesia (Zjednoczeni dla Śląska, ZdŚ)||18,668||0.12||—||—|
|Committee of Grzegorz Braun "God Bless You!" (Szczęść Boże!)||13,113||0.09||—||—|
|Congress of the New Right (Kongres Nowej Prawicy, KNP)||4,852||0.03||1.03||—||—|
|Social Movement of the Republic of Poland (Ruch Społeczny)||3,941||0.03||—||—|
|Citizens to Parliament (Obywatele do Parlamentu, OdP)||1,964||0.01||—||—|
4 / 100