Pawlak was born in village of Model in the Masovian Voivodeship. He is a graduate of the Warsaw University of Technology. While he was a student and during martial law he actively participated in strikes.
His first premiership (June 5 - July 7, 1992) was the briefest government during this period, lasting only 33 days. This was, however, a notable period, known commonly as Pawlak's 33 days (33 dni Pawlaka).
After the downfall of Jan Olszewski's cabinet, Pawlak, a leader of the agrarian Polish People's Party, was named the new Prime Minister by President Lech Wałęsa with the mission to form a new coalition government including agrarians, christian democrats and liberals.
However, the Pawlak government failed to gain support from the Sejm majority and failed in a vote of confidence. Pawlak resigned, and the president replaced him with Hanna Suchocka, who won majority support.
Pawlak's first premiership was and is widely viewed as a caretaker administration, serving to give the new coalition time to form the next government in the wake of political disturbance resulting from the fall of the Olszewski government.
Because the cabinet did not receive support from the Sejm, at this time Pawlak had no official ministers, only temporary chiefs of executive branches.
The Polish People's Party and the social democratic, post-communist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) won the 1993 election in a landslide, holding a super-majority and the support of the socialist-agrarian government, with Pawlak as Prime Minister again.
Pawlak made headlines when he chose Ewa Wachowicz (Miss Polonia) as his press secretary.
Prime Minister Pawlak and Kwaśniewski soon found themselves at bitter political odds. Kwaśniewski reportedly had an ambition to became "Prime Minister de facto", while Pawlak wanted to retain the power of his office. Both leaders used their parties to fight for power.
Pawlak was initially in an informal alliance with President Wałęsa against the SLD. However, their good political relations soon dissipated.
In 1995 Pawlak offered three options to Kwaśniewski. First: he would remain Prime Minister but with Kwaśniewski as Deputy and Minister of Foreign Affairs. Second: the SLD would form a government with Kwaśniewski as Prime Minister. Third: Oleksy would become Prime Minister under the present coalition. Pawlak reportedly thought that Kwaśniewski wouldn't risk a minority SLD government without the support of the majority or the elevation of his main partisan opponent, Oleksy, to Prime Minister and would rather choose being the deputy of Pawlak. However Kwaśniewski surprised many by choosing the third option.
Despite good public approval ratings Pawlak failed in his bid for the Presidency in 1995, finishing a distant fifth (after Kwaśniewski, Wałęsa, Jacek Kuroń and Jan Olszewski) and winning only 770,417 votes (4.31%).
After this Pawlak for nearly decade kept low-level political and public positions. Although he continued to serve (since 1989) as a Sejm Member, he concentrated rather on his work as a firefighter.
After the SLD won decisively 2001 parliamentary election Kalinowski became deputy of the new Prime Minister Leszek Miller, after the PSL joined the coalition. Pawlak did not play a major role during this period.
Pawlak's comeback began in 2005 when he became PSL leader again.
Currently, in the new liberal Civic Platform (PO)-PSL government, formed after the Polish parliamentary election, 2007 Pawlak became the first deputy prime minister and Minister of Economy under Prime Minister Donald Tusk.
Although PSL is still the smallest party in the Sejm, Pawlak is often cited as having achieved a major politicial victory. During his time his party enjoyed better electoral results, the elimination of major opposition among voters from the agrarian party (Samoobrona), and the resumption of major influence in rural ares and with the Tusk cabinet (three portfolios). (Without the PSL votes, the PO would not have a majority, even though it is the biggest party.).
Pawlak was for many years criticized for his stiff personality (he was called "Cyborg Prime Minister"). However, these criticisms have recently diminished.
Pawlak is married and has children. However, rumors of his womanizing have persisted for many years. His wife, Elżbieta, is thus sometimes called "Pawlak's formal wife"..