The round-table discussions are one of the most important events in the modern history of Poland. Not only did they end the period of communism that started after the Second World War, establishing the framework for systemic transformation, but also laid the foundation for the modern Polish political scene and social divisions. At the same time, the round-table discussions are perceived as one of the most controversial events. On the one hand, they provoked political changes that made Poland the leader of the transformation in Europe in 1989, but on the other hand, they strengthened the institutions that became the reason for the slowdown of reforms.
With the introduction of martial law in 1981, which destroyed the moral fibre of Solidarity, the decade of apathy began. The opposition was made illegal and decimated since its activists were jailed. The Polish authorities did not have any plan regarding effective economic and social reforms. By the end of the decade, it was already clear that the country would handle the economic crisis only with large-scale reforms, the social costs of which would be very high. Combined with the change in the Kremlin’s policy that was introduced by Gorbachev’s government, such a situation provided for an unprecedented change of political system. The round-table discussions were an attempt to engage the opposition representatives in the activities of the government.
Influenced by a wave of strikes from the spring and summer of 1988, the authorities began negotiations with a part of the opposition. During the first stage, which lasted from August 1988 to the end of January 1989, it was necessary to decide a few organisational issues: time, a method of selecting delegates, topics to be discussed and preconditions. First of all, the authorities wanted to share the responsibility for the crisis with the opposition, guaranteeing that they would remain in power. The opposition, however, believed that the participation in the negotiations and then in the undemocratic elections would be the price for the legal activity of Solidarity.
The actual round-table discussions lasted from 6 February to 5 April 1989. At the opposite sides of the table, there were opposition and Solidarity representatives led by Lech Wałęsa as well as coalition and government representatives led by Minister of Internal Affairs General Czesław Kiszczak. Moreover, the meeting was attended by church observers. The sessions were divided into three main working groups that focused on political reforms, economy and social policy and union pluralism. As a result, almost 200 pages regarding the postulated framework of transformation, the range of economic reforms and many other issues were written down.
The most important, however, were political decisions. It was agreed, for example, that Solidarity would be made legal, and a new parliamentary election would be called. In free elections, 35% of the seats in the Sejm, the lower chamber of the Polish parliament, were to be contested, whereas the rest were to be kept by the Polish United Workers’ Party (Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza, PZPR) and its allies. Moreover, a free election to the Senate, the higher chamber, was assured. Such a structure of the Parliament was supposed to ensure that power would remain in the hands of the communists, who also wanted to create the office of president that was to be led by General Wojciech Jaruzelski.
A crushing victory of the opposition in the election of 4 June 1989 invalidated the majority of the political agreements of the round-table discussions which made Solidarity seize power in September 1989. Some of the agreements, however, remained valid. Wojciech Jaruzelski became the President of Poland which slowed down the process of reforms and settling accounts with communism, including a democratically elected president and the Sejm which would happen in December 1990 and October 1991 respectively.