The Prime Minister, Hanna Suchocka, clearly shocked by the vote, promptly handed in her resignation to President Lech Walesa. By early evening, however, it was not clear whether Mr Walesa would accept it. With no obvious alternative in sight, there was speculation that the President might ask Ms Suchocka to remain in office while significantly reshuffling her cabinet. Other options being discussed included the appointment of a new prime minister - Poland's sixth since the end of Communist rule in 1989 - or the dissolution of the Sejm (parliament) and fresh elections.
Yesterday's vote of no confidence was put forward by MPs belonging to the Solidarity movement in protest over the government's austere economic reform programmes under which many ordinary working people have been badly hit.
Its immediate cause lay in the government's refusal to cave in to pay demands earlier this month by striking teachers and public health workers. It also reflected the feeling among many Poles that life had become harder rather than better over the past four years. 'We are convinced that the Cabinet has lost the ability to govern,' said Alojzy Pietrzyk, the Solidarity MP who presented the no-confidence motion. 'And in the end, it is better to dismiss the government than to have a general strike,' he added - referring to the wider strike action planned by the trade union if the government had survived.
Ms Suchocka, seen by many to have contributed to a period of stability and even modest economic upswing during her 10 months in office, condemned the vote as irresponsible. 'It looks to me as though we are jumping off a diving board without checking to see whether there is any water in the swimming pool,' she told the Sejm.
'The (good) work started by this government has been stopped,' she said, adding that crucial elements of Poland's economic reform programme would now be delayed and potential foreign investors discouraged.
Ironically, Ms Suchocka's downfall could have been averted had Zbigniew Dyka, her former justice minister, not inexplicably failed to have turned up for the vote. With 445 MPs in the chamber, the motion needed 223 votes (an absolute majority) to be carried - and that was the exact number it won.
Almost immediately after the government fell, Ms Suchocka and leaders of Poland's main political parties held emergency talks with President Walesa in order to try to resolve the crisis. With 29 parties represented in the Sejm, working governments can only be formed through coalitions. No immediate alternative to Ms Suchocka's six-party coalition was apparent.
President Walesa, who praised Ms Suchocka as the best prime minister Poland had had since 1989, nevertheless appeared confident. 'I have a solution for every situation,' he said after watching the Sejm vote. Asked what it was, he said: 'Always a better one.'
Although the collapse of the government would lead to delay in the implementation of Poland's economic reform programmes, it would not necessarily lead to a reversal. 'If a new government disregards budgetary discipline, three years of Poland's achievements could be undone,' said Ian Hume, the World Bank's representative in Warsaw. 'But my basic belief is that there is no need to panic because the economy is recovering, even in the state sector, and should continue to grow.'