By Frank J. Dmuchowski
NB: This is, unfortunately, going to be a very complex article that will be more understandable to those familiar with the political situation in Poland. However, I am hopeful that with some patient persistence this article will be beneficial in some way to all my readers. In my challenging research to write this article, I have learned a good deal with a lot of effort about the Polish electoral system and the concept of proportional representation.
On October 13, 2019 Poles in Poland and outside will go and cast ballots for the Sejm (Polish Parliament) with 460 seats as well as the Senate with 100 seats. The major question is will Law and Justice (PiS), the party of Lech Kaczyński continue its dominance and if so by how much?
In order to provide a possible answer to this question, we will be looking at polling data provided by POLITICO Europe and there ‘Poll of Polls’ which basically shows support for political parties all major election battles throughout all the countries in Europe.
POLITICO Europe was selected for this article because they have no obvious connection to any of the political parties in Poland. Their current estimate of the distribution of political strength is on a very current basis. For example, the polling data cited in this article is current as of October 4, 2019.
What can be said from the POLITICO polling is that the current general election in Poland could be very interesting. Overall there is every indication to suggest that Law and Justice (PiS) will continue to be the dominant party on election day with an estimated 48% support in the 2019 general election as compared to the 37.6% support in 2015. However, while their overall support in Poland has increased over 2015 this may not translate into the same or more seats in the Sejm or the Senate.
How is this possible you might ask? The answer relates to the nature of Poland’s election laws and the strategy that the opposing parties have put into place.
Key to Understanding Poland’s Electoral Process in the 2019 Elections
There are three major points to remember:
First: in Poland voting for the Sejm (Parliament) is based on proportional representation with a threshold (minimum) percent for a party or a coalition to be represented in the Sejm. The Sejm is the primary center where key Polish laws are created.
In Poland the threshold % for a single political party is 5% of the vote to enter the Sejm. For a coalition of political parties the threshold % is 8% of the popular vote. If a party or coalition does not receive its threshold % then it cannot be in the Sejm. The purpose of the threshold % is to ensure that small fringe parties do not get into power.
So now what happens to those votes for parties and coalitions which do not reach the threshold %? The simple answer is they do not count and their actual voting strength in the Sejm is distributed over the successful parties and this impact can be very dramatic.
(For example in the 2015 election to the Sejm: PiS received 37.6% and PO (Platforma Obywatelska) received 24.1% of the popular vote. After eliminating the votes for parties that did not reach the threshold %, PiS’s actual voting strength in the Sejm became 51% and PO’s became 30%. Both increased but PiS had a greater increase.
Second: PiS achieved its great success because there was a large number of small political parties that did not reach the threshold %. These small parties never got into the government.
Third: To reduce the chance of PiS having such overwhelming success in 2019 smaller political parties have formed coalitions. For example, PO although the second-largest vote receiver in the 2015 election is now part of the coalition KO (Koalicja Obywatelska
POLITICO Europe Poll of Polls for Poland as of October 4 2019 is:
Law and Justice (PiS) 48%, Civic Coalition (KO) 28%, The Left (Lewica) 13%, Polish Coalition (KP) 7%, Confederation Freedom and Independence (Konf) 4%.
The strategy of those Opposed to PiS
If the Polish Coalition (KP) does not reach 8 % and the Confederation Freedom and Independence does not reach 5% then Law and Justice could again have a majority of more than 50% in the Sejm without having to form a coalition. On the other hand, if everyone reaches their threshold % then it is possible that Law and Justice (PiS) would have to form a coalition government with one of the smaller parties in order to have a voting majority in the Sejm.
(please see the appendix for the makeup of the different political parties and the coalitions)
Proportional Representation Voting
Unfortunately, it is very difficult to present to the nuances of proportional representation voting in a clear and straightforward manner and there is no right way that works in every situation. In its purest form in proportional representation, if you get X% of the vote you receive X% of the power in the governing body. However, there are significant nuances created by the use of threshold % and in the United States by gerrymandering. The United States is not the only country to allow gerrymandering. For example, it occurs in the United Kingdom, France, and Canada to name a few countries.
For example, in Russia which has proportional representation with threshold %, there are so many small parties that did not reach the threshold % that over 45% of the vote became irrelevant and the power has overwhelmingly gravitated toward political parties supporting Putin in the last Russian parliamentary elections.
On the other hand, in Israel which has nealy pure proportional representation voting with no threshold %, there have been two elections in less than 12 months because no party or coalition could get 50% plus 1 vote in the Knesset. In the Israeli Knesset because of the closeness of the elections small parties exercise a great deal of influence because of the need of the larger parties to work with them to form a majority coalition.
America’s System of Proportional Representation in the House of Representatives
Just to close the loop on those who believe the system in the United States is the best, I would point out that in the United States which has proportional representation without threshold % by House of Representative District there is the difficult problem of abusive gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is a way for a political party to ensure they have maximum influence. Gerrymandering has become so abusive in that in at least two cases the courts have ruled against the gerrymandered redistricting and referred the matter back for correction.
As an additional side point in the United States because of the Electoral College system for choosing a president, it is possible for an individual to become president while losing the popular vote by a large margin. On the other hand, in Poland, you can only become president if you receive a majority of the popular vote.
Which system is best? Who knows? The best thing that each of us can do to preserve democracy is to be informed and to vote!
(1) Major Political Parties and Coalitions (Poland 2019 Sejm (Parliamentary Election) and Estimated % Support as of October 4, 2019, by POLITICO Europe’s Poll of Polls
PiS (48%) Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość) Leadership: Jarosław Kaczyński
KO (28%) Civic Coalition (Koalicja Obywatelska) (PO, .N and smaller parties)) Leadership: Grzegorz Schetyna
Lewica (13%) Lewica (SLD, Wiosna & Razem) Leadership: Włodzimierz Czarzasty
KP (7%) Polish Coalition–Koalicja Polska (Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe + Kukiz’15) Leadership: Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz
Konf (4%) Confederation Freedom and Independence (Konfederacja Wolność i Niepodległość) Leadership: Janusz Korwin-Mikke
(2) NB What about the Polish Senate
Elections for the Polish Senate are done slightly differently than for the Sejm). Basically in the Senate for a particular district whoever has the most votes wins. In the 2015 election Law and Justice (PiS) had 61 out of 100 seats. In order to reduce or eliminate this possibility in 2019 non-Law and Justice (PiS) parties and coalitions have generally agreed on only one candidate to support. So each race essentially becomes a 2 person race making it more difficult for Law and Justice (PiS) to have an easy win!)