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Title: Piłsudski and parliament : the crisis of parliamentary government in Poland 1922-1931
Author: Polonsky, Antony
ISNI:       0000 0001 3494 0795
Awarding Body: University of Oxford
Current Institution: University of Oxford
Date of Award: 1968
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The new Polish state which emerged after the First World War adopted a highly democratic constitution based upon that or the Third French Republic. The powers of the President and the Cabinet were indeed even weaker than those allowed by the French Constitution. Although the Senate could hold up legislation and demand that proposed laws be passed in the Sejm by an 11/20 majority, in practice political power was concentrated in the Lower House, elected by universal suffrage with proportional representation. This constitution, adopted in March 1921, worked badly from the start. One hundred and thirty years of partition had created very different political traditions among those who had lived under either Austrian, Prussian or Russian rule. In addition, the political experience of the Polish clubs in the ueichsrat, the Reichstag and the Duma had been that of sectional groups whose sole concern had been to obtain the redress of minority grievances, a training singularly unfitted for members of a national legislature such as the Sejm, a body responsible for the effective control of the country's government. Widespread poverty and ignorance encouraged politicians to indulge in demagogy, and the prevalence of corruption in public life tended more and more to be ascribed to the nature of parliamentary government, which became increasingly discredited. The long years of foreign rule, during which Polish national survival had been the pre-eminent goal in politics, obscured the new state's obligations towards her own national minorities, who made up altogether one third of her population. Moreover Poland's perilous international position, her newly won independence threatened by both Germany and Russia, lent calls for a stronger government greater force. Parliament was further discredited by the failure of the politicians to deal successfully with the exceedingly difficult economic problems which confronted the new state. Finally, the persistence in the post-war period of the now largely anachronistic conflict between the National Democrats, under Roman Dmowski and the supporters of Jozef Piłsudski, the charismatic leader of the Polish legions in the First World War and Supreme Commander in the victorious war with the Soviet Union, was a continual source of instability. Thus it was not surprising that the progressive breakdown of the parliamentary system, conflicts over the position of the Piłsudski-ites in the Army, and the recurrence of severe economic difficulties led to a coup in May 1926 which brought Piisudski to power after three days of fighting. Piłsudski had no well-defined political ideas. He was principally interested in foreign policy and Array affairs, and showed little interest in the day-to-day running of the Government. He did not, therefore, to the surprise of some of his adherents, establish a dictatorship after his coup. Instead he maintained the 1921 Constitution, introducing a number of modifications. Of these the most important were the provision that the Government's budget proposals be enacted automatically if the legislature failed to approve a budget in the specified time, and that which deprived Parliament of the right to effect its own dissolution, a right now granted to the President acting with the approval of the Cabinet. Piłsudski attempted to co-operate with Parliament through the accomodating Kazimierz Bartel, a former radical politician who was Prime Minister from May to September 1926 and again from June 1928 to April 1929 (between October 1926 and June 1926 he was Vice Premier). The system of government pursued in this period was a sort of guided democracy 1 which allowed Parliament a limited role in criticizing the activities of the Government, but reserved the formulation and implementation of policy as the exclusive province of the Cabinet. The Cabinet was only formally responsible to the Sejm, and in fact could not be forced to resign by a vote of no-confidence. Under Polish conditions there was much to be said for this semi-autocratic system. It allowed a fair degree of personal and political freedom; parties, apart from Communist organizations, were not banned, few people were arrested, and the press was relatively free. At the same time, it provided a strong Government with continuity of policy, a vital need if any consistent plan was to be pursued concerning the national minorities, economic problems or foreign policy. Yet this 'Piłsudski-ite system' was to prove scarcely more successful than the 1921 Constitution. Although Piłsudeki had come to power with the support of the parties of the Left (the Polish Socialist Party and the two radical peasant groups, the Peasant Party and the Liberation), he came into increasing conflict with then, particularly after the elections of March 1928. This conflict culminated in the formation of an alliance of six parties of the Centre and Left, the so-called Centrolew which demanded the replacement of the Piłsudski system 9 by a return to full democracy. Nevertheless, in the elections of November 1930, after arresting a large number of Opposition politicians and by using considerable administrative pressure to influence the voting, Piłsudski won a decisive victory over his opponents. The arrests, the Government's electoral victory, and the trial and conviction of the leading Opposition politicians in October 1931 saw the virtual abandonment by the Sanacja as the Government called itself, of the residual parliamentarianism which had persisted after the coup. Although the press continued to enjoy relative freedom, and most political parties were allowed to exist openly, the Government became far more autocratic, though still not authoritarian. This development became much more marked, and the clash between the liberal and authoritarian elements within the Sanacja more evident, after Piłsudski's death in May 1935 had exposed the ideological hollowness of hie 'system'. This thesis is an attempt to describe the failure of two constitutional experiments: that of the democratic constitution of March 1921, and that of the semi-autocratic system introduced after the coup of May 1926. It takes as its starting-point the elections of November 1922, the first to be held under the new constitution. The detailed narrative continues to the end of 1930, when the Government's victory in the elections and the arrest of the leading Centrolew politicians saw the culmination of the move to a more autocratic system. The problem of Poland's political evolution during this period has been relatively neglected, both in Poland and in the West. In Poland, a fair amount of work has been done on the radical political parties, both Communist and non-Communist. However, very little has been published on either the Piłsudskiites in this period, or the National Democrats, although there are signs that something may soon be done to bridge this gap. In America, a valuable book has recently been published on Piłsudski's coup, but since it concentrates its attention upon the events of the coup itself and on its military aspects, its treatment of the political background and of subsequent political developments in somewhat sketchy. Apart from this book, almost nothing of serious academic worth has been written in the West on Polish internal politics between the Wars, although a number of useful works on foreign policy have appeared. This thesis is based primarily on Government documents in tne Archiwum Akt Nowych in Warsaw, on papers dealing with the Polish Socialist Party in the Archiwum Zakładu Historii Partii. on the minutes of the debates in the Sejm and Senate, on memoirs and on contemporary newspapers.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: Politics and government ; Foreign relations ; Poland