Social Education 55(6) pps. 360-366
©1991 National Council for the Social Studies
For more than two hundred years Poles have been fighting against neighboring powers-Russia, Prussia, and Austro-Hungary in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, World War I, World War II, and (finally) the Soviet occupation and the Kremlin-imposed Communist regime. This paper will set forth, in brief, the history of struggles that have led to the recent revolutions and reforms in Poland.1 The entire Soviet bloc has broken as a result of both internal and external phenomena. Internal factors include the people's dissatisfaction with continuing economic crises, lack of public participation in the government, and limitation of human rights. Externally, domestic Soviet problems and perestroika have rendered the Soviet Union less able to interfere in the satellite Central and Eastern European countries.
Poland has led these countries in democratization reform. In 1989, "Round Table" talks took place in Warsaw between the ruling Communist party (Polish United Workers party, or PUPW) and its associates on one side, and the opposition grouped around the Solidarity Trade Union and its leader, Lech Walesa. As Regulski (1989a, 423) observes:
This was a historic event as it was the first time in Eastern Europe the Communists not only acknowledged the existence of an opposition but also negotiated with it about future reforms and policies. Discussions concerning local government constituted one important element of the entire political reform aimed at introducing a democratic system. To communicate the importance of local government reform, and to make it understandable for a foreign reader, it is necessary to describe first the system of local government that existed until 1990.
The System of Local Government in Poland: 1950-1990
Decentralization in Poland2
The basis for socialist local government in Poland was founded in 1950 by The Territorial Agencies of the Uniform State Authority Act. That act imposed the principle of state uniform power: local councils were incorporated into a pyramid of (hierarchical) People's Councils, thereby losing their autonomy. Municipalities and cities lost their property and all such property was nationalized. Local administration became controlled by the central government. Local budgets depended almost entirely on grants and transfers from the state budget and thereby lost their fiscal autonomy and became part of the central budget.
Polish postwar history is characterized by repeated political crises leading to decentralization. As Regulski noticed (1989a, 424), after each political crisis the Sejm (Polish Parliament) passed a new act concerning local government, "under a label of decentralization and increase in public participation" (table 1). Invariably, the decentralization policy was abandoned after a relatively short period and a counteracting policy of centralization was introduced.
This phenomenon-a wave of decentralization followed by centralization-is a result of the struggle between pressures for and barriers to decentralization.
Pressures for decentralization
(1) Centralized management has been unable to resolve many issues, including: strong social dissatisfaction and a threat to economic growth resulting from the poor quality of urban fabric, shortage of housing, undeveloped and weak infrastructure, and a heavily polluted environment.
(2) The need for social support for the social and economic policies has made the Communist regime more open to decentralizing tasks and means in order to create more opportunities for the direct involvement of local societies.
(3) The need for less direct control and supervision, and less order-like management from the central level has been broadly voiced by local governments and by many state-owned enterprises.
Barriers to decentralization
(1) Many political leaders perceived decentralization as a threat-a first step in the erosion of the existing political entity and a challenge to overall control by the leading party.
(2) A highly centralized bureaucracy has, over time, become an important political factor and a strong social group; decentralization threatens its interests and position within the political and administrative system.
(3) Economic crises, foreign debt, an unbalanced state budget, and the political system itself all called for restrictive financial policy, including a tight central control over local finances.
(4) Inexperience with and ignorance of the concept of self-government and the benefits of a decentralized system have resulted in a lack of public support for decentralization.
The influence of each of these factors has varied over time. Recently, we witnessed broad legal opportunities reflecting the declared decentralization policy. At the same time, however, the political structures remained centralized. General opinion has it that the legal opportunities have been too slow, too fragmented, and too shallow to be effective. Rapidly growing social dissatisfaction and reforms in the Soviet Union created both the pressure and the "friendly environment" for reform in Poland.
Political and Organizational Issues
Local government systems must be viewed in the broader context of the state. Poland, like any other formerly Communist country, was a state with a strong ideological orientation. Ideology has, since World War II, taken precedence over the economy. This orientation was even stressed in the introduction to its constitution. According to this ideology, the state is:
The Communist, ideology-oriented state also required extremely centralized systems of decision making and policy implementation. Any institutional network was controlled by the party and was built in the form of a pyramid (i.e., a hierarchy). The lower an institution was in the hierarchy, the narrower its discretion and the stronger its supervision by a higher-level authority.
Local government also organized in the form of a pyramid (see figure 1), with local councils at the bottom and the Parliament at the top.
Parallel to this system of elected councils, another pyramid of executive bodies was formed (see figure 2).3 For the sake of efficient implementation of goals and strict control, the executive bodies and administration more often than not dominated the elected councils.
Within the system of local government, the pyramids of elected and executive bodies resulted from passage of the Local Government Act, introduced in 1950. This act abolished local self-government and defined new roles for elected authorities. From then on (until 1990) People's Councils not only represented local interests but also acquired the state power in their area.
One significant feature of this pyramid system was a dual subordination of local authorities. Horizontally, councils were subordinate to their electorate; vertically, to those above them on the pyramid. A dual subordination also existed within the structure of executive bodies. The Local Government Act of 1950 introduced the principle of uniform state authority which resulted in this double role of local authorities and their dual subordination.
The introduction of that principle also brought about the forfeiture of legal status (within administrative law) by urban and rural communes.4 The act had many far-reaching consequences such as no right to take bank credits, no right for direct international and intergovernmental contacts and cooperation, and no individual property rights. The two roles performed by local authorities were, more often than not, contradictory.
Ideological orientation of the state, hierarchies of elected bodies and administration, priority given to industry, and centralization created an environment with no room for local policies. Centrally-set state policies did not consider local interests, needs, or priorities.
The Communist party was recognized by Poland's constitution as the sole political power capable of implementing the functions of the state and the goals of socialism. The effect of that constitutional principle on local affairs and local authorities was significant for reasons that also caused local interests to be neglected:
First, the political monopoly of the Communist party rendered the party and its allies the only institutions able to select candidates for both local members and national elections. As a result, all councilmembers were party members or, if not, had party support or, at least, approval. The party, therefore, controlled the local councils and elections were entirely spurious. Thus, local councils were constructed exactly as they had been designed by the state (i.e., the party) authorities.
Second, once elected, a councilmember had to obey the principle of so-called democratic centralism within the party; his or her main task, therefore, was to implement the party's national program. Since the party's program included only national issues, local affairs were neglected or ignored.
Third, centralized, hierarchical pyramids allowed for strict control over local authorities in the form of direct interference in administrative affairs by higher-level authorities. Those authorities could suspend all decisions arrived at on a local level.
To a certain degree, the above three phenomena existed as a result of and were supported by the fourth factor: the administrative (territorial) division of the country.
Until the administrative reform in 1972-1975, a three-tiered system of division operated in Poland: seventeen voivodships, over three hundred districts, and approximately four thousand communes. As part of the reform, the number of voivodships was increased to forty-nine, the intermediate level (district) was abolished, and the number of communes was decreased to roughly twenty-five hundred. Gorzelak and Mularczyk (1990, 18) state that
officially, the reform was introduced in order to decentralize the state administration and to bring the government closer to the people. In fact, the true reason for the reform was the intention to break down the strength of the voivodship party apparatus and to destroy the well established local (district level) elites. But in reality the reform increased centralization, for the central political and administrative authorities could now exert more control over the regional party and administrative centers of power than [before]. To the picture of the former system of local government in Poland, we should add two other characteristics concerning public support and social basis for local government.
Generally speaking, the social basis and public support for local government in Poland were very weak. People were not interested in participating in a strictly limited decision-making process; public participation hardly existed. All significant decisions were made within the party, a local council, or even within its presidium, which consisted of the most prominent party members and, as explained earlier, was "designed" by the party. After World War II, no tradition of local self-governance developed; people had no confidence in the non-democratically-elected councils.
Another important factor was that society was organized around places of work and professional interests rather than places of residence. Within the centralized and nationalized socialistic economy, state-owned enterprises provided for their employees many services usually provided by local authorities (such as kindergartens, day-care centers, and cultural, leisure, or sports facilities) or by special institutions (such as insurance and health care). The system, therefore, broke down individuals' connections to their places of residence, their neighborhoods, and their cities or villages.
Economic and Financial Issues
The political aspects of the state also influenced Poland's economy and local development. The centralized system of power allowed for only one decision-making center-the central (national) party authorities. As a result, local policies hardly existed. Municipal or city councils became mere branches of central administration and implemented state national policies. These policies more often than not neglected local interests and territorial aspects of the economy. As a result of the overwhelming sectorial approach to the economy in the 1950s and early 1960s, the financing of urban facilities was subordinated to industrial needs. Contradicting the general goal of the state, industry took priority over the betterment of people's levels of living. The entire economy was therefore understood as a single enterprise on a national scale. Within such a political and economic environment, no room for autonomous local governments existed.
The 1950 Local Government Act also determined the economic roles performed by local authorities. Those authorities had a double role within the national economic system; they served individually "(l) as a managerial unit directly responsible for economic activities of a particular character, and (2) as a co-ordinator of all economic activities within a given area, responsible for general economic growth" (Regulski 1989a, 431). Those two roles were often contradictory and difficult to perform because little or no local government authority over enterprises existed as a result of the state's sectorial approach to the economy.
The 1950 Local Government Act deprived municipalities of their property. Local authorities lost their economic autonomy and became administrators of state property. The scope of their economic engagement remained broad and became even broader in the 1980s. Besides public utilities, it consisted of typically profit-oriented local economic activities, such as small manufacturing industries, retail shops, and leisure and tourist services. (From 1975 to 1983, however, local governments had no right to run their own profit-oriented enterprises.)
In addition to nationalizing municipal property and rendering local authorities mere branches of a central administration, the Local Government Act of 1950 also significantly influenced the budgetary system. According to the act, local (communal) budgets were incorporated within the general state budget. Local governments therefore lost their financial autonomy and were unable to determine any financial policy of their own; instead, they became almost fully dependent on higher-level authorities and spent what they received. All regulations concerning finances were set by the central administration, which also strictly supervised local budgets-both income and expenditures.
Within the financial and budgetary system there existed not only a hierarchy of budgets, but also a hierarchical system of resource redistribution. A small proportion (not exceeding 25 percent since the 1950s) of local income was collected locally. The remainder of budgetary income was collected through central government-controlled tax offices, accumulated into the state budget, and redistributed to communes via provincial budgets. The provinces (voivodships) played a key role in the redistribution system. All central grants were transferred to voivodships, which in turn divided the grants among communes. No rules governed the redistribution; voivodships created their own criteria. They also had the right to allocate the budgetary surpluses of each commune (even to transmit the surpluses from one commune to another).
Since central grants have always been larger than direct income to local budgets, local governments are extremely dependent on such grants (see figure 3). Arbitrarily decided grants and other transfers formed a lion's share of communal income. Some local taxes, fees and charges, and profits from commune-run enterprises were sources of revenue but constituted no more than 25 percent of total income.5 Local tax rates were set by central authorities and were the same across the country. (For example, land tax levied on state-owned enterprises was the same in both urban and rural communes and, despite inflation, was stable for many years, amounting to l0zl/m2.)6 Local authorities could decide only the level of a dog-possession tax.
The Beginnings of the Reform
The deepening economic crisis and the people's growing dissatisfaction has led them-since the late 1970s-to question the prevailing economic and political system in Poland. The opposition grouped around the Solidarity movement7 has become stronger. The political leadership has also realized that ruling the country without social support is impossible. Thus, dialogue and negotiations between the party and the opposition began with the "Round Table" talks in early 1989.
Local government reform was one topic discussed during the Round Table talks. The Solidarity program was oriented toward fully reestablishing democratic self-government at the municipal level (Regulski 1989b), proposing eight requirements for the new system of local government:
(1) abolition of the constitutional principle of uniform state authority (i.e., local councils should represent the local community only and be released from hierarchical dependencies);
(2) a new democratic electoral law;
(3) reestablishment of the municipal legal entity and property rights;
(4) a stable and controllable system of supplying local budgets, free of arbitrary state administration decisions;
(5) state interference in local affairs limited to controlling the legality of municipal decisions;
(6) transfer of state administration to municipal control;
(7) freedom to establish intercommunal associations; and
(8) right to juridical appeal against decisions of state administration.
As Regulski8 (1989a, 442) wrote:
We stressed, however, that we do not want to impose a new organizational pattern worked out at the "Table" without any public participation. Our goal was to remove some barriers and to initiate a process of change. The future system will be created by people involved in local affairs.
The party strongly defended the socialist system of local government based on the principle of uniform state authority and held strong reservations against transfer of local administration to communal control, fixing the level of central grants for five-year periods, and establishing a national association of local governments. They were willing to negotiate other Solidarity propositions. The above principles were, however, the foundation of the former system. Therefore, the reform could not be effective without changing the basis of the political system within which local government acts.
Fortunately for the local government reform, and for the overall economic and political reforms, an agreement to organize parliamentary elections in June 1989 was reached at the Round Table talks. Only 35 percent of the seats to Sejm (the lower chamber, or house) were elected democratically, the balance were reserved for the Communist party and its allied political organizations. The Senate-reestablished as a result of the Round Table talks-was, however, elected according to a fully democratic law.
The Communists were disappointed: Solidarity won all 35 percent of the available House seats and 99 percent of the Senate. This victory over the old regime made it possible to raise again the issue of local government reform. The Senate, on its first working session (29 July 1989), took the legislative initiative and passed a resolution on reestablishment of self-government at the local level. Included in the Senate resolution were principles upon which the new system was to be built which were similar to those Solidarity proposed during the Round Table talks.
In August 1989, a new cabinet was formed by Tadeusz Mazowiecki-the first non-Communist government in Central and Eastern Europe after World War II. The cabinet and the Parliament recognized reestablishment of local self-government as one of the most important elements of the global political and economic reforms. An Office for Local Government was created, headed by the Under Secretary of State-Government Plenipotentiary for Local Government Reform.9 That office took the initiative representing the cabinet and, together with the parliamentary commissions, prepared several bills regulating the new system.
The job was immense, requiring eight new parliamentary acts and amendments and nearly two hundred pieces of legislation. Legislation for the entire reform was prepared within eight months-what under ordinary circumstances would take years.
Included in the package of local government legislation were the following:
In general, the Solidarity (and its civic committees) victory was overwhelming in towns of more than forty thousand inhabitants, which often achieved a rate of 85 percent Solidarity candidates elected. In smaller towns and the countryside, electors preferred independent candidates and peasant parties.
Despite opinion poll results and forecasts suggesting that turnout rates would fall between 55 and 60 percent, the turnout was the lowest of all Polish postwar elections: 42.2 percent. The regional differences were striking:
The low turnout may have been caused by several reasons, such as:
The characteristic features of the new system are:
Compared with U.S. standards, Polish local councils are large. The number of councilmembers depends on the population of a municipality and ranges from fifteen, in municipalities with up to four thousand inhabitants, to eighty, in the largest cities (except Warsaw, which has special regulations).
The council's executive board is composed of the mayor, his or her deputy(ies), and a maximum of five other members elected by the council. The board is responsible for, among other things, preparing motions to appear before the full council, implementing council decisions, and employing and releasing administrative staff. Many of the internal organization issues are regulated by city or municipality charters, a new element of the local government system.
In addition to the above, about twenty local government associations, or unions, grouping specific kinds of municipalities have been formed (e.g., Association of Polish Cities, National Union of Spa/ Resort Municipalities, Union of Small Towns, and Polish Conference of Mayors). Such associations may be compared with U.S. special districts. This possibility is not well understood by local authorities. As of 1 January 1991 only one special district had been registered.
The Voivod also has the power to overrule any local government practice that is inconsistent with the central authority wishes in the domain of powers delegated to municipalities. The Prime Minister may dissolve any municipal council and institute commissioner rule if the council repeatedly violates the constitution or the law. Citizens also have the right to appeal decisions taken by local councils.
By the end of 1994 all primary schools will be managed by local authorities. Until that time municipalities can voluntarily take over primary school management from voivodship authorities, in which case the local government must meet all the costs connected with teaching (including teachers' pay).
Western readers might be surprised to learn that Polish local governments are also allowed to conduct any income-generating, profit-oriented economic activity as long as the service provided is not being met by another producer or service deliverer.10
In 1990, local governments were bound by the "old" financial law, operating the budgets approved by former People's Councils because it was not possible to change the law in the middle of the year. Unlike the former financial regulations, which made local governments almost entirely dependent on central budget and state administration decisions, the new system is more objective.
On 1 January 1992 a new financial law will be introduced. In addition to new taxes (including personal income tax and value-added tax), new regulations concerning local finances will give municipalities additional sources of income, thus granting local governments more financial autonomy than ever before.
Currently, separate legislation regulates central grants. That legislation is valid only for 1991. Next year a new grant system will be introduced with state grants and subsidies calculated according to objective criteria. The new grant system tends toward the Norwegian model.
Almost two years have transpired since Poland initiated its reforms. The Polish economy and Polish political system are no longer centralized and ideologically oriented. The reform of local government played a crucial role in the process of building a new democratic state.
Before the local elections on 28 May, some people anticipated that the reform of local government would change the country so drastically that we would wake up in an entirely new Poland. Poles did wake up in a new country, at least from an institutional perspective. Election day created a new dimension to the state: local self-governance. The legislation opened new possibilities for citizens of Poland and now it is up to them to fill the legislative framework with life.
Local government reform in Poland was strictly prepared: only part of Parliament was democratically elected, local councils were still branches of state authorities, and local interests possessed no genuine representation. Thus, reform legislation was prepared-as Senator Regulski says-"as a dress for a yet unborn child." The scholars, politicians, and professionals who designed the system had nobody-no local government institution-to consult for their projects. The legislative framework and reforms are characteristically flexible, i.e., open to minor and major changes, amendments, and improvements. The reform is obviously a process and it is up to the local governments and local practice to change the system after it is implemented.
The process of changing and improving the system began the first day the new system was in place. Several amendments have already been made to the Local Government Act. A project of the new Local Government Duties and Powers Act is being prepared. New financial legislation will be submitted to the Parliament in the autumn of 1991. Preparations for the new territorial division of the country have just started. The existing regulations initiated only the process of the reform and raised several legal possibilities that would be confronted with practice.
In summary, the legislation that enabled the reform of local government in Poland broke down five state monopolies that existed in the previous Communist system:
(1)Political monopoly. The political monopoly made democratic elections impossible. The entire state depended on the goals and politics of one (Communist) party that was recognized by the constitution as the only political power having both public and state authority. The state (i.e., the Communist party) is no longer the sole political power in the country. More than 250 political parties and groups now operate in Poland; several are becoming politically important. Local councils are composed of members from various parties and various political programs. This is the first step toward local democracy.
(2)Uniformity of state power. Only the state had power in every area of public life. Within such a system no room existed for autonomous local government. Decentralization was accomplished by deconcentrating executory powers and financial means rather than by transferring political and decision-making authority. The introduction of local self-government cut down the hierarchical dependency between local and central authorities. Municipal councils represent local interests first-they do not have to follow orders given by a higher authority. Local government and the state became two separate elements of the institutional system. The Montesquieuan rule was reintroduced.
(3)Property and ownership rights. The state is no longer the sole owner of public property.
(4)Financial monopoly. One uniform state budget embraced all local budgets. The state budget covered all expenses on each level of government and collected all revenues. Therefore, no local financial policy existed. Under the new system, local governments have their own sources of income and receive state grants calculated according to objective criteria. They are becoming increasingly financially independent of the central budget.
(5)Administration. Municipalities have their own administration and are no longer subordinated to state authorities. Thus, local governments have a means to implement their own policies and goals independent of the state.
2 The following section is based on Jerzy Regulski's "Polish Local Government in Transition," in Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, volume 7, pp. 423-444.3A third pyramid of party bodies also existed with so-called Party Basic Units at the bottom and the Central Committee and the Political Bureau at the top.4For, at least, this reason while writing about Polish local governments since 1950 it is appropriate to use the term "commune" to avoid any connotation of Western autonomous municipalities.5Local authorities, because they were not considered legal persons, had no access to bank credits and loans.6Until the mid-1970s land had no value-both in practice and theory-within the socialist economy. The results of research on land valuation (Mizera and Poczobutt-Odlanicki 1971) show that land taxes and other fees connected with rented or leased land for a chain of stores in downtown Warsaw amounted to .00003% of the annual turnover and .006% of the book profit.7From its very beginning, in August 1980, Solidarity has been more than a trade union. It is a social movement aiming at deep and radical economic and political reforms.8Professor Jerzy Regulski was the chief negotiator for Solidarity on local government reform during the Round Table talks.9Senator Jerzy Regulski was appointed for this position.10Considerable heated discussion took place during the Parliament sessions on whether local authorities should have such a right. Finally, because of limited sources of income assigned to local governments, economic crises, and market shortages, the House included that right in the Local Government Act. There is still, however, a danger of local governments monopolizing certain local markets.
1 This paper is based on several outside articles and on my own observations and research. The first part is inspired by Professor Jerzy Regulski's "Polish Local Government in Transition" in Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, volume 7, pp. 423-444 (1989a), to which the author also contributed. Another important source is Polish Local Government Reform by Chris Mularczyk and Grzegorz Gorzelak.