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.

Polish parliamentary election

In addition to Switzerland, today will also see general parliamentary elections in Poland. These elections were called early when the governing coalition, in power since shortly after the elections of September, 2005, collapsed.

Given the outcome of Poland’s parliamentary and presidential elections of 2005–the first year in which both institutions had been elected in close proximity–Poland has not only the dual executive that defines its semi-presidential regime type, but a twin executive.

Today’s election is expected to be close. It is by no means certain that the party of the Kaczynski twins, the conservative-nationalist Law and Justice (PiS), can retain the premiership. The other main contender is the Civic Platform (CO), usually described as a “liberal” (in the European sense) party. The Polish party system is highly fragmented. In 2005, the PiS was the largest party with 27% of the vote and 155 of the 460 seats. The PO was second with 24.1% and 133. The next largest parties had around 11%. The electoral system is districted open-list PR (in 40 districts).

Under Poland’s constitution, the presidency is one of the most powerful in (non-XSSR) Europe–for instance it has a veto that needs 3/5 to override ((I mistakenly wrote 2/3 initially.)) –but the president’s ability to appoint the cabinet is limited. The president has discretion to nominate a candidate to be premier, and here’s betting he will choose his twin brother. However, the premier cannot take office until he and the proposed cabinet obtain a vote of investiture (and, of course, once appointed, the cabinet depends on the ongoing confidence of the lower house).

EuroTrib will be a good place to follow the elections and the results, as they come in.

Poland: Early elections

The Polish Sejm, or lower house of parliament, voted (by more than the required two thirds) to dissolve itself and go to early elections.

Poland is a premier-presidential system with a fairly powerful presidency; nonetheless, the president can ensure his allies control the prime minister’s chair and the cabinet only if the balance of partisan forces in parliament is favorable to him.

Of course, following the most recent elections about two years ago, not only did President Lech Kaczynski manage to place an ally in the prime minister’s chair. He was able to get his twin brother as PM.

The campaign is underway and already “bitter.” Who will win? In Poland’s volatile and fragmented party system, it is hard to say, but clearly the twins are anticipating a changed parliamentary balance that will permit them to realign what has been an unstable coalition.

The crisis that triggered the decision to dissolve parliament came to a head when the Prime Minister fired Andrzej Lepper, the leader of Self Defense, from his position as deputy prime minister and agriculture minister, resulting in a cabinet lacking a parliamentary majority.

Civic Platform [a pro-business party], which according to two recent but conflicting opinion polls, is either running neck-and-neck with [the ruling] Law and Justice or trailing it, will in any case need at least one coalition partner if it manages to win the most votes in October.

The party is already considering the possibility of a coalition with the small leftist Polish Peasant Party. The problem for Donald Tusk, the leader of Civic Platform, is that the newly established Left party, led by the former President Aleksander Kwasniewski, is also trying to bring this peasant party into his movement.

Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski and the twins’ Law and Justice party intend to tap the rural vote, which went mostly for rivals Self Defense or for the Polish Peasant Party in 2005. The campaign will try to make it a fight against corruption, which may seem odd for a party (and family) that currently controls both the presidency and the prime ministership, but, of course, Law and Justice is blaming its erstwhile partner for the corruption (as well as clearly attempting to emphasize it stands for what its rather empty label implies).

The election will be 21 October.

Click on “Poland” above to see entries relating to the previous elections (both presidential and parliamentary) and the twins.