Polish electoral system referendum

Poland held three referendums on September 7th, one of which concerned a proposal of changing the Sejm (the country’s lower house) electoral system to one of single-seat districts. The proposals were submitted to referendum by outgoing president Bronislaw Komorowski. Under the Polish Constitution either the president, with consent of the Senate, or the Sejm, may submit proposals to referendum (article 125), the result of which is binding if turnout is over 50%.

Turnout in the referendum was extremely low: only 7.8% of Polish voters bothered to vote. Almost 79% voted in favour of changing to FPTP, which was very much in line with the polls, which had consistently shown large majorities in favour.

However, it is doubtful if the electoral system proposal could have been implemented even if the turnout threshold had been reached, considering that the constitution mandates proportionality in Sejm elections. Moreover, the procedure used was a ‘regular’ referendum rather than the procedure necessary for a constitutional amendment, which requires a two-thirds majority in the Sejm.

What led to this referendum? The issue was basically put on the agenda by Pawel Kukiz, a rockstar, social activist and presidential candidate, who came third in the first round of the presidential election in May with just under 21% of the vote. Electoral reform, in the shape of adoption of single-seat districts, was one of his few main issues in his grass-roots, anti-system campaign, with the stated aim of breaking up the ‘partocracy’ and making politicians more individually accountable. In response, after the first round Komorowski ordered the referendum on the issue.

This is not the first popular movement in favour of a move in the direction of more majoritarian electoral systems. Romania and Italy have had comparable movements, successful in Italy, almost successful in Romania. Personally I’m a little puzzled by Poland’s movement, or at least the supposed aim as I would expect that individual MP accountability would be a relatively strong side of Poland’s open-list system (which allows a high degree of voter influence over which candidates are elected from each list), while local representation wouldn’t be too big an issue under its moderate district magnitude (7 to 19, mean is about 11). Are they indeed grasping at straws, or am I missing something?

11 thoughts on “Polish electoral system referendum

  1. Thank you for another great planting, JD!

    I think one common criticism against open-list PR, and one I think has merit, is that if district magnitude is even as “moderately” large as it is in Poland, then individual accountability is weak, notwithstanding the preference voting for candidates. The voter has 7 or 11 or whatever members of parliament and may not feel much connection to any of them, especially given that it is often not clear ex-ante who will be just above the line (i.e. have enough votes to win the intra-party contest) and who below. Moreover, the territorial extent of the districts is quite large, in most cases.

    • District magnitude in MMP systems has the same issue, one which is being debated in Canada. After our Oct 19 election, both the Liberals and NDP have promised 12 months of public consultation to design a new voting system. The NDP wants to design a made-in-Canada MMP system, while the Liberals are uncommitted as to what they want to design — some support MMP, some oppose PR and want AV (the preferential ballot in single-member districts, what Americans call IRV), and many are just uncommitted — but either way, region size is a top issue.
      Fair Vote Canada has six-minute videos (with ballots) of two samples: the Law Commission of Canada model with a 16-MP region, and a model inspired by the Jenkins Commission with an 8-MP region and a preferential ballot for local MP (but with 37.5% top-up MPs, not the 15% or 20% in the Jenkins Report.) And I have a blog post suggesting 12-MP regions:


  2. At least it failed in Poland because of low voter turnout, but one would think that any change in the electoral system should be held at the same time as a Sejm election. Also if they really wanted the partocracy to be broken up, a switched to the Irish STV system would have done the trick more so than embracing FPTP.

    • Would STV have been a solution to perceived ‘partocracy’? Ireland has more independents than any other democracy, but its parties have extremely strong party discipline and as far as I can tell, the way its government (broadly speaking) functions is no less party-centred than in other parliamentary systems.

      • Yes, the parliament in Ireland is very weak for a “personalistic” electoral system. As you note, JD, the large number of independents is consistent with what we would expect from the electoral system. But strong party cohesion and weak parliamentary oversight are not. I find this quite puzzling.

  3. Strange how a very large majority was in favour of change, yet did not bother to vote. You would expect that those who do not care enough to vote, also do not care enough to get informed. If they are not informed, why do they not simply want to stick to the status quo?
    Is there a widespread distrust in politics in Poland? Because otherwise I don’t get why people want change, probably without knowing what the system would change to…

      • I guess so, yes. Collective action problem. Still, why bother to research, and nothing bother to vote? How often was this issue in the media? Maybe if it was an unavoidable issue, then people learnt about it, without having to take too much effort.

  4. As in Italy, mandatory turnout thresholds disincentivise supporters of the status quo from turning up, because doing so would make it easier for the threshold to be achieved. Therefore, referenda often have a very high number of % in favour of change, but turnout is very low.

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