Liberum veto
The liberum veto was a parliamentary device in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth was a dualistic state of Poland and Lithuania ruled by a common monarch. It was the largest and one of the most populous countries of 16th- and 17th‑century Europe with some and a multi-ethnic population of 11 million at its peak in the early 17th century...

. It allowed any member of the Sejm
The Sejm is the lower house of the Polish parliament. The Sejm is made up of 460 deputies, or Poseł in Polish . It is elected by universal ballot and is presided over by a speaker called the Marshal of the Sejm ....

 (legislature) to force an immediate end to the current session and nullify any legislation that had already been passed at the session by shouting Nie pozwalam! (Polish
Polish language
Polish is a language of the Lechitic subgroup of West Slavic languages, used throughout Poland and by Polish minorities in other countries...

: "I do not allow!").

From the mid-16th to the late 18th century, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth had the liberum veto, a form of unanimity voting rule, in its parliamentary deliberations. The "principle of liberum veto played an important role in [the] emergence of the unique Polish form of constitutionalism
Constitutionalism has a variety of meanings. Most generally, it is "a complex of ideas, attitudes, and patterns of behavior elaborating the principle that the authority of government derives from and is limited by a body of fundamental law"....

." This constraint on the powers of the monarch were significant in making the "rule of law, religious tolerance and limited constitutional government ... the norm in Poland in times when the rest of Europe was being devastated by religious hatred and despotism."

But the liberum veto has also been held responsible for the deterioration of the Commonwealth political system, particularly in the 18th century, when foreign powers bribed Sejm members to paralyze its proceedings. Piotr Stefan Wandycz wrote that the "liberum veto had become the sinister symbol of old Polish anarchy."


This rule evolved from the principle of unanimous consent, which derived from the federative character of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which was essentially a federation of countries. Each deputy to a Sejm was elected at a sejmik
A sejmik was a regional assembly in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, and earlier in the Kingdom of Poland. Sejmiks existed until the end of the Commonwealth in 1795 following the partitions of the Commonwealth...

 (the local sejm for a region) and represented the entire region. He thus assumed responsibility to his sejmik for all decisions taken at the Sejm. A decision taken by a majority against the will of a minority (even if only a single sejmik) was considered a violation of the principle of political equality.

In its early manifestation, the rule was used to strike down only parts of some resolution taken by the Sejm, not the entire Sejm. For example, as Czapliński describes in the Sejm of 1611 context, some resolutions were struck down, but others passed.

It is commonly, and erroneously, believed that a Sejm was first disrupted by means of liberum veto by a Trakai
Trakai is a historic city and lake resort in Lithuania. It lies 28 km west of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Because of its proximity to Vilnius, Trakai is a popular tourist destination. Trakai is the administrative centre of Trakai district municipality. The town covers 11.52 km2 of...

 deputy, Władysław Siciński, in 1652. In reality, however, he only vetoed the continuation of the Sejm's deliberations beyond the statutory time limit. He had, however, set up a dangerous precedent. It was fewer than 20 years later, in 1669, in Kraków
Kraków also Krakow, or Cracow , is the second largest and one of the oldest cities in Poland. Situated on the Vistula River in the Lesser Poland region, the city dates back to the 7th century. Kraków has traditionally been one of the leading centres of Polish academic, cultural, and artistic life...

, that a Sejm was prematurely disrupted on the strength of the liberum veto before it had finished its deliberations. This was done by the Kiev
Kiev or Kyiv is the capital and the largest city of Ukraine, located in the north central part of the country on the Dnieper River. The population as of the 2001 census was 2,611,300. However, higher numbers have been cited in the press....

 deputy, Adam Olizar. The practice spiraled out of control, and in 1688 the Sejm was dissolved before the proceedings had begun or the Marshal of the Sejm was elected. During the reign of John III Sobieski
John III Sobieski
John III Sobieski was one of the most notable monarchs of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, from 1674 until his death King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. Sobieski's 22-year-reign was marked by a period of the Commonwealth's stabilization, much needed after the turmoil of the Deluge and...

, half of Sejm preceedings were scuttled by the veto. The practice also spread from the national Sejm to local sejmik precedings.

In the first half of the 18th century, it became increasingly common for Sejm sessions to be broken up by liberum veto, as the Commonwealth's neighbours — chiefly Russia
Russia or , officially known as both Russia and the Russian Federation , is a country in northern Eurasia. It is a federal semi-presidential republic, comprising 83 federal subjects...

 and Prussia
Prussia was a German kingdom and historic state originating out of the Duchy of Prussia and the Margraviate of Brandenburg. For centuries, the House of Hohenzollern ruled Prussia, successfully expanding its size by way of an unusually well-organized and effective army. Prussia shaped the history...

 — found this a useful tool to frustrate attempts at reforming and strengthening the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth deteriorated from a European power into a state of anarchy.

Many historians hold that a major cause of the Commonwealth's downfall was the principle of liberum veto. Thus deputies bribed by magnates or foreign powers, or simply content to believe they were living in some kind of "Golden Age", for over a century paralysed the Commonwealth's government, stemming any attempts at reform. Other historians, primarily Norman Davies
Norman Davies
Professor Ivor Norman Richard Davies FBA, FRHistS is a leading English historian of Welsh descent, noted for his publications on the history of Europe, Poland, and the United Kingdom.- Academic career :...

, argue that the effective end of the veto, in 1764, allowed for a rebirth of proper governance. Davies argued that the country had ascended from the veto's anarchy and had organically developed the desire for a new course in politics. He further argues that the anarchy of the veto fed a rebirth of culture that led to the development of the 1791 constitution. In all, these historians argue that the liberum veto did not bring about the end of the nation but did bring acceptance of the need for a new, modern, constitution.


After 1764 the liberum veto practically went out of use: the principle of unanimity did not bind "confederated sejm
Confederated sejm
Confederated sejm was a form of sejm in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 18th century. After 1764, sejms were frequently confederated...

s," and so deputies formed a "confederation" at the beginning of a session in order to prevent its disruption by liberum veto.

The liberum veto was abolished by the Constitution of May 3, 1791
Constitution of May 3, 1791
The Constitution of May 3, 1791 was adopted as a "Government Act" on that date by the Sejm of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Historian Norman Davies calls it "the first constitution of its type in Europe"; other scholars also refer to it as the world's second oldest constitution...

 (adopted by a confederated sejm), which permanently established the principle of majority rule.

The achievements of that constitution, however — which Davies called "the first constitution of its kind in Europe" — were undone by another confederated sejm, meeting at Grodno in 1793. That Sejm, under duress from Russia and Prussia, ratified the Second Partition of Poland
Second Partition of Poland
The 1793 Second Partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was the second of three partitions that ended the existence of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth by 1795. The second partition occurred in the aftermath of the War in Defense of the Constitution and the Targowica Confederation of 1792...

, anticipating the final disappearance of the Polish-Lithuanian state two years later.

Modern parallels

Up until early 1990s IBM
International Business Machines Corporation or IBM is an American multinational technology and consulting corporation headquartered in Armonk, New York, United States. IBM manufactures and sells computer hardware and software, and it offers infrastructure, hosting and consulting services in areas...

 had a decision-making process called "non-concur" in which any department head could veto a company-wide strategy if it didn't fit in with his department's outlook. This effectively turned IBM into several independent fiefdom
A fee was the central element of feudalism and consisted of heritable lands granted under one of several varieties of feudal tenure by an overlord to a vassal who held it in fealty in return for a form of feudal allegiance and service, usually given by the...

s. "Non-concur" was eliminated by CEO Louis Gerstner who was brought in to revive the declining company

See also

  • Consensus decision-making
    Consensus decision-making
    Consensus decision-making is a group decision making process that seeks the consent, not necessarily the agreement, of participants and the resolution of objections. Consensus is defined by Merriam-Webster as, first, general agreement, and second, group solidarity of belief or sentiment. It has its...

  • Filibuster
    A filibuster is a type of parliamentary procedure. Specifically, it is the right of an individual to extend debate, allowing a lone member to delay or entirely prevent a vote on a given proposal...

  • Minoritarianism
    Minoritarianism is a neologism for a political structure or process in which a minority segment of a population has a certain degree of primacy in that entity's decision making....

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