The Polish president’s veto

Polish President Andrzej Duda has exercised his veto against two of the government’s bills to change the appointment of judges. Media accounts are treating this action as a “surprise”, but it really should not be seen as such. Both the government (premier and cabinet) and the president (directly elected) are of the same party, Law and Justice (PiS), yet the institutional dynamics make the action unsurprising.

First of all, such a possibility was signaled by the president on 18 July. Secondly, the theory of presidentialized parties (Samuels and Shugart, 2010) should make presidential action against their own governing party’s controversial decisions the default expectation. That is, the institutions “predict” such actions, and it is politics that sometimes intervenes and prevents the president from acting on his or her independent mandate. In this case, the institutions prevailed.

Duda is not the leader of the party in the sense of who holds the formal organizational title; that would be Jarosław Kaczyński, a former premier. But that fact only makes today’s veto by the Polish president an even better case for demonstrating the power of the argument. The fundamental point of my book with Samuels is that parties face a “moral hazard” problem under presidentailism, due to separate survival (fixed terms). Once a presidential candidate has won the election (separate origin), he is no longer an agent of the party. He now has (potential) incentive to respond to his wider constituency and head-of-state obligations, even when those might conflict with the party that nominated him. He is secure in his fixed term against efforts by the party to restrain him, unlike a prime minister (who, by definition, can be dismissed by the assembly majority or by the party).

One manifestation of presidentialization of parties can be the reversal of the principal-agent relationship, such that the president redirects his own party, making it his agent, rather than the other way around. But–we point out in the book–this is only one possibility. Another is that the president and the party face conflict–an intraparty separation of powers.

The latter seems to be the case here. I heard a BBC interview earlier this morning with an official of the PiS party. He slammed the president for going against the party’s manifesto, and said that the government (which is a single party, with a majority) should be allowed to implement its promises, including judicial reform. The statement overlooks a key institutional fact: Poland is not parliamentary, but semi-presidential. The president is freed from the manifesto by virtue of his separation of origin and survival–that is, his independent election and fixed term.

Duda received significantly more votes in winning the presidency (in a two-round election) than the PiS earned in winning its parliamentary majority. The governing party’s majority is manufactured by the electoral system (details in my earlier entry), whereas Duda’s was earned in the two-candidate runoff. In addition to the electoral system, the PiS surely owes its being in the position to gain that assembly majority from Duda–or, specifically to its own election in the “honeymoon” of Duda (again, see the earlier entry for details).

I do not know if the issue of judicial reform was raised in his own election campaign, but the wider point is that it hardly matters. He has the institutional capacity to act independently, and he did. He has the constitutional power of veto, and he exercised it.

For better or worse, this is how presidentialism (including semi-) is supposed to work. As a head of state (who must deal with other governments unhappy with Polish plans) and with a wider popular constituency (with many Poles in the streets over this issue), and protected by the fixed term, the president can act against the will of the government and its own parliamentary majority.

The veto takes a three-fifths vote of parliament to override, and the PiS is far short of this threshold. Unless it can bring other parties around to this bill, the president’s veto will stand. What this might mean for Duda and his relationship with his party is not for me to predict. But, based on the theory of presidentialized parties, what has happened today is far from surprising; it is predictable.

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Poland’s protests–and institutions

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.

Parliamentary majority in Poland?

Poland uses a proportional system, and has a generally very fragmented party system. Yet the Law and Justice Party (PiS) may have won a majority of seats today.

The headline in Politico.eu says “Polish right sweeps parliamentary elections”.

Somehow I don’t think of 39% of the vote as a “sweep”. However, if the exit polls are accurate, the wasted votes (below the threshold) were so high that PiS could have around 242 of the 460 seats.

However, if you read far enough down in the Politico piece, you see, “In previous elections, Polish exit polls have not always been accurate. There is a chance that some of the smaller parties balancing on the edge of the 5 percent threshold needed to enter parliament, could still squeeze in.” In which case, it would be rather less sweepy.

Also: “A coalition of left-wing parties failed to make it past the 8 percent threshold to get seats in parliament”.

WAIT. Is the threshold 5% or 8%? Yes; 5% for a single party, 8% for a pre-electoral coalition. And apparently there could be a lot of votes that were cast for parties (or coalitions) that did not clear it.

The outcome is not really a complete shock, at least in terms of vote percentage. The largest party has had 39-41% of the vote in a few elections since 1991. In fact, as recently as… 2011, when it was Civic Platform that won 39.2% of the vote (and 45% of the seats).

Moreover, the presidential candidate of the PiS was just elected in May; no candidate of Civic Platform even entered. (The runner-up was an independent backed by Civic Platform.) Thus this election was held within the “honeymoon” of the president opposed to the incumbent government, and so a surge in the PiS’s vote is what I would have predicted even knowing nothing about Polish public opinion.

However, an absolute majority of seats would be a first for Poland since the fall of the communist government in 1989. It would not be, however, the first time a lot of votes were wasted below the threshold (see 1993, 1997, and 2005). It would just be the first time that a leading party on around 40% of the votes and a big wasted vote happened in the same election. That combo is a recipe for a majority, even under “proportional” representation.

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?

Poland’s local elections–ballot problems

Poland held local elections–for three tiers of local government–in November, 2014. According to Aleks Szczerbiak, writing at the LSE blog, the elections to the regional assemblies produced significant controversy. There was a very high invalid ballot rate: 17.9% of votes cast,

a record for a Polish election (in previous regional elections the numbers ranged between 12.1 per cent and 14.4 per cent) compared with an average of 9.8 per cent across all three tiers and only 2 per cent in the mayoral elections. Some commentators claimed that the large number of invalid votes helped to explain the discrepancy between the exit poll prediction and the actual results. They argued that the reason for this might have been because some voters were confused by the ballot paper for the regional polls – which took the form of a booklet containing one page for each party’s candidates rather than a single sheet (as was the case in previous local elections) – and may have thought that they had to pick one candidate from each party list. Unfortunately, the State Electoral Commission was not required to record whether invalid votes in regional polls were incomplete or spoilt.

The separate page for each party reminds me of the Duval County, Florida, multi-page ballot for president in 2000. Instructions said “vote every page” (because some pages actually were for different offices), and some voters dutifully complied. And thus had their presidential vote (overwhelmingly for Gore) thrown out.

I gather that the Polish regional assemblies use open-list PR, like those to the Sejm, first chamber of national parliament. (Szczerbiak notes that the regional assemblies were the only elections in November to be partisan.) Open lists can create a challenge for ballot design (see the Colombian case*), but a booklet format seems like an especially bad choice.

Szczerbiak also notes that the Peasants Party did unexpectedly well, and this could have been due to their having the first page of the booklet. He cites other reasons as well, including their distancing themselves from the policy of the national government, in which they are a partner, over sanctions against Russia, which are hurting Polish apple growers (FRUITS & VOTES!).

The same ballot was used for the European Parliament election in May, “where there was no significant increase in invalid votes and no premium for the party which appeared on the first page.” But then Szczerbiak adds that the European ballot instructions were clearer.

Poland has presidential elections in summer and parliamentary in fall, 2015.

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* And two follow-up posts: 1, 2.

Polish election

Poland holds parliamentary elections today. The main contenders for the premiership are the Civic Platform of incumbent Donald Tusk and the Law and Justice Party of former PM Jaroslav Kaczynski.

As Euronews notes:

Whoever wins tonight will have to form a coalition with one or more of three smaller parties including Tusk’s current junior partner the Polish Peasants’ Party, which is seeing its support slip.

A left-wing liberal newcomer, Palikot’s Movement, a splinter from Civic Platform, may confuse matters. Among other things it wants to eliminate the power and privileges of the Catholic church in public life.

The latter party is interesting, not only due to its newness, but because it clearly is attempting to shake up the existing Polish political spectrum, through both its party platform and the profiles of its individual candidates. DW reports:

Palikot became notorious in Poland’s conservative circles because of his outspoken attacks on the church. Insiders say this was also the reason why he was kicked out of the ruling Civic Platform party, which was keen not to upset the church. In this election campaign, Palikot has made anticlericalism his main weapon.

The party’s lists of candidates are also of interest:

Its candidates include Anna Grodzka, a transsexual woman whose public battle with the Polish legal system after sex reassignment surgery made her something of a celebrity, and Poland’s best-known gay activist, Robert Biedron.

Poland uses open-list PR, ((That is, once parties are assigned seats in proportion to their votes in multi-seat districts, those seats are assigned within each party’s lists solely on the basis of how many votes candidates receive personally. Under Poland’s variant, the voter must cast a candidate-preference vote, as there is no party-only option.)) so the personal followings of candidates can be critical to the success of a party, especially a new one like Palikot’s. An article from this past July, when Palikot was still setting up his party, said that “Palikot also declared that figures from the worlds of sport and music were in line to run as candidates for his party.” He also said his lists would have equal numbers of men and women, as well as many young people. “It’s time to cure the Polish party system, which is ill and undemocratic,” he said in the interview.

While the Euronews story, quoted above, gets it right, other news items (and especially headlines) predictably fail to appreciate multiparty politics. For instance, Business Week’s “Poles may re-elect premier” and Reuters Canada’s “Polish PM seeks new reform mandate in election“.

Poland has a highly fragmented party system, so the leading party is quite likely to have only around a third of the votes and seats. This will necessitate post-election coalition bargaining. Plus, the presidency in Poland’s premier-presidential system is far from merely ceremonial. ((That is, the presidency is directly elected. The prime minister and cabinet are responsible to the majority in parliament (the Sejm, the first chamber of the bicameral legislature). The president has no constitutional authority to dismiss a PM, but has initiative in designating a PM-to-be. Poland’s president also has a veto on legislation that requires 3/5 to override.)) The presidency is held by Civic Platform, whose candidate Bronislaw Komorowski defeated Kaczynsni, 53-47, in a runoff in July, 2010. In the first round of that election, Komorowski won around 41% of the vote. Can his party come close to that level in an election more than one year after the presidential election? Typically, the answer in presidential and semi-presidential elections would be no: beyond the president’s “honeymoon” and with the presidency itself not at stake, we can expect the party to poll considerably lower. The fact that the party holds the presidency, however, makes it likely that it will also retain the premiership, following post-election bargaining. The only hope for Kaczinnski would be a decisive lead, plus a good showing for parties clearly more compatible with his party than with Komorowski’s. That seems unlikely.

Polish presidential result

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, former PM, failed in his bid to win the presidency that was vacated by the death of his twin brother, Lech, earlier this year.

The winner of the close contest, Bronislaw Komorowski, is from the party of the current premier, Civic Platform.

Aside from sympathy over the death of his brother, one source of support for Kaczynski was a desire to balance the control of the country’s dual executive structure.* But instead, Poland will now begin a new phase of unified government.

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* According to some news coverage I saw over the past week while traveling in Europe, Kaczynski explicitly employed this theme of “balance” in the campaign.