Three Presidents of the Second Polish Republic

Polish presidential elections in the historical perspective

There were three presidents-in-office in the Second Republic yet there were more presidential elections, one of the paradoxes related to the history of the office in interwar Poland, just like there were more persons carrying the duties of the head of state.

by Wojciech Stanisławski


The discussion concerning the shape of the independent Polish state’s political system began already during the First World War, when prospects of a rebirth of independent Poland emerged. The situation was unique as the last document of a constitutional nature, known as the Constitution of 3 May, had been drafted more than a century before and obviously could not serve to shape the order in a 20th-century state, drafting of which, as was realised already during the war, would be an extraordinary challenge. Regardless of in which international configuration and within which borders Poland was to be reborn, it was clear that the country was facing great social tensions, potent political divisions and a necessary agricultural reform; there was also an equally strong need to build a strong army and administration. In all four areas, the role of the head of state was a vital, if not the most important, aspect of the political balance.

Constitution of 3 May 1791, painting by Jan Matejko, 1891 (public domain)

There was no shortage of concepts related to Poland’s political system, the more so as ideological divisions were accompanied by involvement in the ‘Polish cause’ going in different, not rarely contradictory, directions and the political system could be modelled on the rich American and European tradition, while revolutionary ambitions were also alive (and reinforced by the events in Russia). Consequently, historians of Polish constitutionalism know even projects developed by syndicalists, anarchists or fans of the system of workers’ councils. At the same time alive was the monarchist tradition and thought, one can even talk of not just projects but a certain monarchist practice as the nominally highest authority in the Berlin-dependent Kingdom of Poland was held, starting from September 1917, by the Regency Council. And it was the regents (Archbishop Aleksander Kakowski, Duke Zdzisław Lubomirski and Józef Ostrowski) who on 7 October 1918 issued the first of many manifestos appearing at the time when the First World War was drawing to a close that proclaimed Poland’s independence. It was also they who on 14 November transferred the highest authority in the state to Józef Piłsudski, who, in a decree issued on that very day, called the Polish state a republic. A week later, he formally took the highest authority in his quasi-presidential function of Interim Chief of State.

Additionally, work on the Constitution started already when the Provisional Council of State was operational, in January 1917, yet it was obvious that drafts developed at that time had to be thoroughly examined by the Legislative Sejm of the Polish Republic elected in January 1919. There were many stages to that work, both given the complicated nature of the constitutional matter and the dynamics of the political scene, yet already in the ‘professorial constitutional survey’, or opinions collected by the Polish government in late January, the presidential office was treated as an inalienable constituent part of the political order. Things were no different in both governmental constitutional drafts (preliminary, known as the declaration of April 1919, as well as the formal normative one of 3 November of that year) and those proposed by political parties: the Popular National Union, the Polish People’s Party ‘Wyzwolenie’, the Constitutional Work Club and the Union of Socialist MPs.

Regency Council: conservative politician and landowner Józef Ostrowski, Cardinal Aleksander Kakowski, Archbishop of Warsaw and Prince Zdzisław Lubomirski, the President (Mayor) of Warsaw (public domain)

They were all examined by the Constitutional Committee whose meetings were explosive as fundamental disputes were going on concerning the office of head of state, the method for selecting the president it as well as the scope of presidential duties. Most preliminary constitutional drafts provided for the presidential election as the most democratic solution and assumed that a politically powerful president could stabilise order in the country, indispensable given the border disputes and fast-changing governments. Little by little, the debate was becoming dominated by the opinion that the president should be chosen by the Sejm. That was motivated by the need to have merit-based and ideology-free elections, although we know (also from parliamentarians themselves) that equally vital was a purely political calculation: as it was commonly assumed that the presidential office would be held by Józef Piłsudski, its prerogatives were being proposed for a specific candidate, as if, and depending on the attitude towards him fans of the Chief of State were ready to give him the broadest powers possible while his critics were making sure they were duly limited.

Ultimately, as is well known, the Constitution adopted in the Sejm voting on 17 March 1921 that entered into force only in June that year, and its provisions concerning the presidential election mode as late as December 1922, was largely supportive of proposals made by the right side of the political spectrum. The president was to be the supreme head of the armed forces yet during an armed conflict he was to somehow delegate his authority to a commander-in-chief he appointed. Equally scarce were other prerogatives and political attributions of the presidential office: the president had no legislative initiative (he could only announce legal acts adopted by the Sejm), yet could convene the Sejm (and dissolve it, but only with three-quarters of the Senate consenting), appoint and dismiss the government, appoint military commanders, pardon for penalties and extenuate them, represent the country in international relations and coordinate its foreign policy. However, all decrees issued by the president were to be countersigned by Prime Minister and a competent minister. In return, the presidential term in office was to be seven years, i.e. longer than that of the parliament electing him.

The cabinet of Jędrzej Moraczewski, 18 November 1918. First row from the left: Stanisław Thugutt, Jędrzej Moraczewski, Józef Piłsudski, Leon Supiński, Leon Wasilewski (public domain)

It is worth describing the president’s prerogatives in so much detail for at least two reasons. First – because that slightly limited framework applied to all three legally elected presidents of the Second Polish Republic (with only the last, Mościcki, receiving incomparably larger prerogatives under the ‘April Constitution’ in the middle of his second term in office). Second – because the entire political game accompanying the defining of the scope of the head of state’s powers somehow missed the point as Józef Piłsudski refused to be a presidential candidate, which astonished MPs of the left and centre, whose factions intended to propose him, indirectly criticising the limitations imposed by the Constitution and suggesting that ‘a more light-handed man [in terms of exercising his power should be elected’.

Consequently, for the elections to be held at the beginning of December 1922 the closest supporters of Piłsudski proposed Gabriel Narutowicz, an architect and a patriot for a number of years working in Switzerland, politically more engaged after the war (he was a member of the General Swiss Committee tasked with helping victims of the war in Poland) and particularly from 1920 onwards when he served on several successive governments holding (to general appreciation) the posts of public works minister and then foreign affairs minister, negotiating, for instance, Poland’s important alliance with Romania.

In total, the political forces in the Sejm proposed five candidates and the election took five successive rounds to complete: on 9 December, Narutowicz’s most serious contender Count Maurycy Zamoyski, a former Polish envoy to Paris proposed by the right, received 227 votes and Narutowicz 289. The voting was public and it was obvious that the candidate of ‘Piłsudski’s faction’ found also support of the Polish People’ Party ‘Piast’ and most Ukrainian and Jewish MPs as well as those representing Poland’s other national minorities. Apart from the old rivalry between the right and the left and the Chief of State’s fans and opponents, that last mentioned fact led to criticism of the new president. Such attacks were initially verbal, expressed in the Sejm and the press, and then in the street, where radical nationalist forces were staging protests.

Józef Piłsudski and Gabriel Narutowicz in 1922 (public domain)

Gabriel Narutowicz took office as president on 14 December, taking over power from the Interim Chief of State. He managed to meet with Cardinal Aleksander Kakowski, start works on establishing a non-parliamentary government and offer the post of the head of the Ministry of Diplomacy in the government to his recent contender Count Zamoyski. He also managed to hear Piłsudski’s words directed at him (‘Mister President of the Republic of Poland! As the only Polish officer in active duty who has never stood at attention in front of anyone, I am now standing at attention in front of Poland that you represent.’). On 16 December, during the opening of an exhibition at the Zachęta Art Gallery, he was shot by an art historian and painter, a fanatical supporter of the National Democracy.

Narutowicz’s death turned out to be a source of disastrous trauma for Piłsudski and, as it was commonly believed, cast a shadow on Polish statehood and rule of law. However, Poland needed someone at the helm: power, as stipulated by the Constitution, was transferred to the Speaker of the Sejm, Maciej Rataj, who established a government of experts with General Sikorski as PM and monitored the next presidential elections. They took place on 20 December 1922. That time, too, the competition between the parliamentary right and left was won by the candidate of the latter: Stanisław Wojciechowski, proposed once again by the Polish People’s Party ‘Piast’ (289 votes vs. 221 for the historian Kazimierz Morawski).

The new president had been an activist of the Polish Socialist Party as a young man (his friendship with Piłsudski dated back to that period), yet he was leaning more to syndicalism than to classic socialism: before the war, he had even managed to return to the country under Russian rule and participate in the cooperative movement and during the war he was one of the politicians supporting the ‘pro-Russian orientation’.

President Stanisław Wojciechowski (painted by Kazimierz Dunin-Markiewicz; public domain)

After having being elected president, Wojciechowski had an active impact (within the limits of his prerogatives) on the contemporary political life: he supported extra-parliamentary cabinets of Sikorski and Władysław Grabski, he was involved in drafting a currency reform as well as tried to introduce a new constitutional and parliamentary custom called the constructive vote of no-confidence (a new cabinet was supposed to be established by the leader of the largest grouping from among these that voted for dismissal of the previous one). He tried to mediate as the dispute between Piłsudski and the leaders of nationalist milieus was growing, both in very specific cases (e.g. a dispute over the Supreme Military Council) and in order to alleviate the existing tension. It did not bring the desired result but pushed the president further away from Piłsudski.

During an attempt at a forcible transfer of power by Piłsudski’s supporters in May 1926, there was no room for mediation: Wojciechowski stood on the side of the government and gave soldiers the order of absolute obedience to the government (‘Honour and Homeland are the mottos guiding your honourable service under the banners of the White Eagle. Discipline and absolute obedience to the rightful authorities and commanders are the ultimate soldier’s duty that you pledged in your oath.’) and he followed the orders of military authorities. However, facing the risk of the outbreak of a civil war in the country, he issued an order to stop the fratricidal fights and submitted a brief resignation of several sentences to the Speaker of the Sejm on 14 May in the afternoon.

President Stanisław Wojciechowski and gen. Mariusz Zaruski near the Saxon Palace in Warsaw (public domain)

Then once again Rataj became acting president and under those dramatic circumstances he managed to convene the Sejm, establish a new government and organise parliamentary presidential elections. The parties supporting Piłsudski proposed him as a candidate, his only opponent being the voivode of Poznań Adolf Bniński supported by the parliamentary right. During the voting on 31 May, Piłsudski received 292 votes in the first round (Bniński – 193), yet the Marshal surprised his followers and refused the office for himself. He motivated his decision just as he had done four years before, adding some words about the moral responsibility for organising the coup; it cannot be excluded, however, that he wished to retain the decisive political initiative. At the same time, Piłsudski proposed another candidate: Ignacy Mościcki, a distinguished chemist and a lecturer at the Technical Universities of Lvov and Warsaw. The voting was held on 1 June: in the first round, Mościcki received 215 votes, and after the third candidate ‘dropped out’, he won with Bniński 281 to 200, becoming the third and last president of the Second Polish Republic.

For all the observers of Polish political life, it was pretty clear that the real power would reside in Józef Piłsudski’s hands. Initially, Ignacy Mościcki focused mostly on his diplomatic and representational obligations, which he fulfilled perfectly well, hosting diplomats, travelling throughout the country, opening exhibitions, presiding over harvest festivals and acting as a godfather at baptisms of numerous children. One of his first decisions was announcing that he intended ‘to be the godfather to every seventh son in Polish families’. About five hundred of them in total, ‘Mościcki’s godsons’ enjoyed some privileges, e.g. education (including university studies) as well as free transport and healthcare, which was quite substantial help for peasant families that they mostly came from.

Ignacy Mościcki (public domain)

Gradually, Mościcki became, for many reasons, increasingly involved in politics. The Marshal’s growing frailty and illness were quite a significant factor, there were also the decomposition of the formerly united ‘Piłsudski camp’, some international threats looming on the horizon and, finally, personal ambitions of the president. In formal terms, the scope of his powers was broadened by the August amendment – the Act of 2 August 1926, which gave the president the right to dissolve the parliament and issue decrees with the legal power of an Act. Mościcki’s position was strengthened by his re-election, which took place on 8 May 1933. The presidential candidate of the ruling camp received as many as 332 votes – it should be mentioned, however, that on that day the sitting of the National Assembly was boycotted by a vast majority of the opposition: the National Party, the People’s Party and Christian Democrats as well as Belarussian and Ukrainian MPs.

There were two key factors for Mościcki’s growing real power and decision-making scope: Józef Piłsudski’s death in May 1935 and a new Constitution adopted less than a month earlier by the National Assembly. The former fact was rather self-explanatory: it eliminated the key driving force of Polish political life and the leader of the Piłsudskites. The case of the April Constitution was more complex.

Chapter Two of the Constitution gave the president immense powers. He held de facto supreme power over the Sejm and the government, and he would be accountable ‘only to God and history’ (as it was frequently quoted). Apart from the prerogatives he had had before, the president could appoint the prime minister and ministers, convene and dissolve the Sejm and Senate, appoint a third of Senators. He could nominate his successor during a war, a candidate for the following presidency and issue decrees with the legal power of an Act (during a war). The head of state was to be elected in a complex way, by the Electoral Assembly composed of five members and ‘75 electors selected from among the worthiest citizens’; yet if the president proposed his candidate, the popular vote was to be decisive.

President Mościcki after signing the April Constitution in 1935 (Polish National Digital Archive; public domain)

The Constitution did not regulate one matter: the date when the term of office for the president expired as he was elected only two years before yet still under the previous Constitution. There were opinions that Mościcki should resign, especially since he was not among Piłsudski’s closest associates, and rivalry for power erupted among them anyway. The president himself solved the dilemma by calling himself (in a press interview) the oldest Piłsudskite and taking a number of informal political initiatives: he had decisive influence on the establishment of several consecutive cabinets, actively supported deputy PM Eugeniusz Kwiatkowski in his struggle with the economic crisis and unemployment. His resignation was no longer mentioned after the dissolution of the Sejm and Senate of the fourth term in November 1938.

However, Mościcki did not hold office until the end of the term, which would have been May 1940. On the day of the outbreak of the Second World War, he appointed his successor (pursuant to Article 13 of the Constitution) as president who was Marshal Edward Rydz-Śmigły, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. The tragedy of the September campaign forced him to change that decision twice. After crossing the border with Romania, Romanian authorities interned both the president of Poland and the government, hence Rydz-Śmigły was not able to fulfil his presidential duties.

Władysław Raczkiewicz (public domain)

Under these circumstances, pursuant to Article 24 of the Constitution, Mościcki appointed his successor: General Bolesław Wieniawa-Długoszowski, the then ambassador of Poland to Italy. However, that solution also proved to be temporary: in an unprecedented statement, the French government (one of Poland’s two major allies in the country’s war against the Third Reich and the Soviet Union) declared that ‘it will not be able to recognise any Polish government established by General Wieniawa’. President Mościcki had to repeat the whole procedure of ‘remote appointment’ and that time he selected Władysław Raczkiewicz as his successor. At the same time, he resigned from office, thereby putting an end to the history of presidency in the Second Polish Republic on 30 September 1939.


Author: Wojciech Stanisławski
Transation: Mikołaj Sekrecki