Protests in Poland have been making international news. The object of the protests is the government’s plans to undermine the independence of the judiciary. The case illustrates several important points about how political institutions affect policy (and can have potential international repercussions). The escalation of the crisis over these plans in recent days makes the decision some months ago to lead with Poland’s 2015 elections and their aftermath in the forthcoming Votes from Seats look like a good one.
We (Rein Taagepera and I) use the case to demonstrate how seemingly small institutional details can tip outcomes in favor of a party with a strong agenda that might undermine democracy itself. (Yes, the very first example mentioned in the book is the US presidential election of 2016.)
The background is that the Polish ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS) has a majority of seats in the first chamber of the assembly (the Sejm). PiS also holds the presidency. It has a manufactured majority, despite the use of a proportional representation system. In fact, the party won only 37.6% of the votes. This would place the assembly majority on the short list of lowest vote percentages ever turned into a majority by a “proportional” electoral system. Moreover, it was a “honeymoon” election–the assembly was elected about six months after the president.
The manufactured majority was possible due to several factors. One is the use of D’Hondt divisors, which tend to boost the largest party’s overrepresentation, especially when it has a strong lead in votes over the runner up (in this case, Citizen’s Platform, with 24.1%). It is also due to the legal thresholds: 5% for a party and 8% for a pre-electoral alliance. This resulted in substantial wasted votes, particularly with the Democratic Left running as an alliance and getting 7.6% of the vote. Had it become a “party” it would have been represented, and the PiS surely would not have won a majority of seats. Or, obviously, had the alliance won just over 0.4% more votes, it would have won seats.
However, the 37.6% itself did not come in a vacuum. As noted, this was a honeymoon election: it was six months after the election of the president to a five year term. Based on a formula (purely empirical, but based on theory) in Votes from Seats, we expect an election with 10% of the presidential inter-electoral period elapsed to result in a modest boost for the newly elected president’s party. The formula (shown in an earlier post on the French 2017 elections) suggests what we can expect for the party’s assembly votes, expressed as a ratio to the president’s own votes (in the first round if a runoff system). We call that ratio the “presidential ratio” or RP. For elapsed time of 10%, we expect RP=1.13. Given that the president, Andrzej Duda, had earned 24.8% of the vote, we’d expect the party to get 39.3%. This is barely over what it actually got (37.6%). So, yes, honeymoon elections matter. (By comparison, PiS had 29.9% in the previous assembly election, in 2011.)
It was not even a sure thing that it would be the PiS that would benefit from the honeymoon boost. First it had to win the runoff, and it did so quite narrowly (51.8% to 48.4%).
So, the current crisis could have been averted, most likely, if any one of the following had been true, thereby preventing the PiS majority government:
(1) Duda had lost the runoff;
(2) The assembly election had not been scheduled so soon after the presidential;
(3) The electoral formula was some common proportional method other than D’Hondt;
(4) There was not a high threshold for alliances, or the Left had made itself into one party (or gotten just a small increase in its votes).
So, yes, institutions do matter!
And institutions may yet matter one other way to this story, and in a way relevant to a couple of my earlier co-authored books. The president has a veto that takes 3/5 to override, and Duda has indicated opposition to his own party’s proposals on the judiciary. He may veto it. Presidents, after all, may help their parties gain power, but they are not beholden to them once in office. Under Poland’s semi-presidential system, the president and prime minister may disagree, even when from the same party. So the story may have at least one other act yet to come.