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.