Poland’s history of constitution-making has generally given the primary role to the parliament, dating back to its first written constitution, which was adopted in 1791 but never implemented because of collapse of the Polish state in 1795. Two short-lived constitutions that operated between World War I and World War II were also developed by the parliament. Its longest operating constitution was, however, imposed after World War II, when Poland became part of the Eastern Bloc, dominated by the USSR. In 1952 a USSR-controlled government imposed a USSR-style constitution, which was to remain in place, with limited changes, until an initial set of changes adopted through a roundtable process opened the door to more significant but piecemeal changes made over the next several years, and to an entirely new constitution developed by a parliamentary committee and adopted by vote of parliament and approval through a referendum in 1997.
Poland in 1988–1989 provided the model for roundtable arrangements later used in other places (especially in Eastern Europe and Latin America), and brought the term into common usage in relation to constitution-making. Economic and political crises in advance of the collapse of the Communist system in Eastern Europe saw moderate members of the Polish Communist Party recognizing by early 1988 that change was inevitable and seeking to extract some advantage by negotiating with the opposition. The existing Communist Party-dominated parliament did not have the legitimacy to develop acceptable constitutional changes on its own. There was a well-recognized opposition group in the form of the Solidarity trade union movement that had achieved prominence through major industrial action a decade earlier. Risks and tensions were high for both sides, however, partly because USSR intervention was still possible and internal violent conflict was a real prospect. In large part because of such dangers, the initial engagement between the parties was kept secret.
From mid-1988 on, six months of mainly secret negotiations about organizational aspects of the roundtable occurred between the Communist government and Solidarity, with mediation provided by Catholic Church leaders. The roundtable itself was convened in February 1989. The full roundtable met infrequently, most of the work being done in smaller committees and working groups, with some major issues being resolved by agreement between the two leaders. By early April an agreement on the way forward (known in Poland as the “Roundtable Agreement”) was finalized. The existing parliament would pass mainly moderate amendments to the constitution. These involved dissolution of the sitting single house of parliament (the Sejm); a democratization of the Sejm by adding a minority of elected members (it was anticipated that the Communist Party would retain control); the establishment of an elected senate as a second house of parliament; and the creation of a new and powerful office of the president. The constitutional amendments were intended to provide some protection to the Communists, while at the same time enabling the opposition to participate in politics.
The Communist-controlled parliament made the agreed amendments on April 7, 1989, just days after the Roundtable Agreement was finalized. Elections were held in June 1989, with Solidarity candidates winning most available seats in both the Sejm and the senate. The expected Communist control of the Sejm did not eventuate, for the pace of wider change in both Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe was such that by the end of 1989 the Communist Party had ceased to exist. It became clear that the compromise reached through the roundtable process had opened the way to further change that could now be achieved much more readily in broadly representative bodies free of Communist domination. Initial attempts were made to completely replace the 1952 constitution, with the Sejm and the senate establishing separate committees for this purpose from 1989 to 1991, each developing its own draft constitution and refusing to cooperate. With progress toward a completely new constitution slowed in this way, some further democratizing changes to the 1952 constitution were made gradually from 1989 to 1992, removing much of the language and many of the institutions of communism. But the result was a fragmented constitution, without coherence.
In 1992, the parliament adopted the Constitutional Law on the Procedure for Preparing and Enacting the Constitution. It provided for a single constitutional committee made up of members of both the Sejm and the senate (ensuring that there would be no repetition of the separate committees of the earlier period), with some nonvoting representatives of the president, the cabinet, and the constitutional court. A complex process was provided for receiving and considering proposals, developing a single draft, deliberating upon the draft through a national assembly (a combined meeting of Sejm and senate), consideration of amendments proposed by the president, adoption of a final draft by the national assembly, and approval by a referendum.
The process under the constitutional law was initiated in October 1992, interrupted by parliamentary elections held in September 1993 and by changes in leadership resulting from presidential elections in 1995, and slowed down by significant political opposition within and outside parliament as the final draft emerged in 1996–97. But eventually the national assembly approved a draft in March 1997, and a final draft incorporating amendments proposed by the president was adopted in April 1997. It was approved in a referendum in May 1997—the requirement was for a vote in favor by more than 50 percent of the voters participating in the referendum, with no minimum public participation required. There was a 43 percent public participation rate, and just over 50 percent of those voting supported the new constitution.