Election preview: Poland

One of the most important elections for the year will be held on Sunday, when Poland votes to decide the fate of its hard right government. I’ll devote another post to why it matters so much; for now, let’s just look at the election itself.

To explain the starting point of the 2015 election, it’s first necessary to understand the voting system. The lower house of parliament, known as the Sejm, consists of 460 members (there is also a smaller and less powerful Senate), elected by D’Hondt proportional representation in each of 41 multi-member constituencies.

Since the proportionality operates only at the constituency, not the national, level, there’s an inbuilt advantage for larger parties. So it’s not surprising that Law & Justice, the largest party, won more than its fair share. But what really boosted its result was the threshold for representation: 5% nationwide for single parties, and 8% for coalitions.*

Three substantial tickets fell just short of the threshold: Together (far left) with 3.6%, KORWiN (right-liberal Eurosceptic) with 4.8% and, most significantly, the centre-left United Left, running as a coalition, with 7.5%.

Five parties made it in, but with so many votes wasted, Law & Justice’s 37.6% was enough to win it 235 seats and a majority in its own right – the first ever in democratic Poland. On the opposition benches sat Civic Platform (centrist), on 24.1% and 138 seats, Kukiz’15 (populist) 8.8% and 42, Modern (liberal) 7.6% and 28, and the Polish People’s Party (PSL; agrarian) 5.1% and 16.

If proportionality had applied nationwide instead of by constituency, Law & Justice would have won only 208 seats. And if there had been no thresholds, that would have come down to 175.

The opposition parties seem to have learned their lesson this time. They have combined forces into a smaller number of tickets, and even though all of them are really alliances of different parties, they are all running as single parties to avoid the 8% barrier.

There are four of them: the centrist Civic Coalition (including Civic Platform, Modern and the Greens); the centre-left Left (including the Democratic Left Alliance, Spring and Together); the centre-right Polish Coalition (including the PSL and Kukiz’15); and the far-right Confederation (including KORWiN and the National Movement).

Despite their ideological breadth, there is no doubt that the first three would co-operate to form government if they were to win a majority between them. It is less clear what Confederation would do, but neither side would be comfortable relying on it. Since it is currently tracking just below the 5% mark in the polls, the problem may not arise.

As between Law & Justice and the three-party opposition, the polls currently show them running neck and neck, each in the high 40s. The momentum, however, appears to be with the government; earlier in the year it was polling below 40%. And if they do come out even (and Confederation misses out), one would expect Law & Justice to win a majority due to its vote being more concentrated.

On the other hand, Polish opinion polls do not have a particularly good record, and the nature of recent political change there might well have made them more rather than less unreliable. The opposition also hopes that increased turnout (in 2015 it managed only 50.9%) will work to its advantage.

If the far right makes it into parliament it is quite likely to hold the balance of power. Ideologically it would seem obviously closer to the government than the opposition, but Law & Justice, being Polish nationalists, are vehemently anti-Russian, while Confederation (like most of the European far right) is pro-Russian.

In the European parliament election, held in May, Law & Justice won 45.4% of the vote; Confederation was just below the threshold on 4.6%, and the other opposition parties – in a slightly different configuration to the present one – had 49.5% between them, on a turnout of just 45.7%

If they can reproduce that on Sunday, the opposition should win. But the European parliament always attracts a protest vote; governments across the continent tend to do badly. This time, with the advantages of incumbency being exploited to the full, Law & Justice have to be regarded as favorites.

Stay tuned for a further post on why that’s such a worrying conclusion.


* Ethnic minority parties are exempt from the threshold, so the German minority won a single seat with 0.2% of the vote, having 8.1% in its one constituency.

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