Poland and proportionality

As I foreshadowed in Friday’s preview, Poland’s right-wing Law & Justice government has been narrowly re-elected (official results here).

The alliance headed by Law & Justice won 235 of the 460 seats in the lower house – exactly what it won at the 2015 election. The three opposition alliances won 213 seats between them: Civic Coalition (centrist) 134, the Left (centre-left) 49 and Polish Coalition (centre-right) 30. A further 11 seats went to the far-right Confederation, and the German minority retained its single seat.

The government did, however, lose its majority in the Senate, which is elected by first-past-the-post from single-member districts. Law & Justice and the opposition won 48 seats each: four independents will hold the balance of power.

Law & Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński expressed disappointment at the strength of the opposition, but nonetheless this is a good result for his government. (Mateusz Morawiecki is nominally the prime minister, but Kaczyński is universally regarded as the one in charge). Its vote increased noticeably, from 37.6% to 43.6%; not unusual for a first-term government in most places, but still far from the norm in eastern Europe.

It was also a good result for the opinion polls. If anything, the opposition did a little better than the final polls were showing, with Civic Coalition reaching 27.4%, the Left 12.6% and Polish Coalition 8.5%.

You probably won’t see this mentioned in the rest of the media, but even a glance at those numbers shows that there’s something wrong with the proportionality of the system. The combined opposition won 48.5% of the vote, almost five points ahead of Law & Justice, yet won 22 fewer seats.

Unlike in 2015, the problem isn’t with the 5% threshold. Even confining ourselves to the parties that actually won seats, on a proportional basis Law & Justice should have won 203 and the combined opposition 226 (centre 128, centre-left 58 and centre-right 40). Confederation would have held the balance between them with 31.

What we call proportional representation often isn’t. There’s a crucial difference between systems where proportionality applies to the whole country, and those where it applies only within provinces or regions. Poland is in the latter group.

Often it doesn’t make much difference. If the regions are large and the parties are broad-based and of comparable strength, the results will usually be close to genuine proportionality (although in a very tight election, “close” may not be close enough).

But where, as in Poland, you have relatively small regions (41 of them) and a large gap between the leading party and its rivals, it’s easy to get distortions. It also means, of course, that the apportionment of seats to regions becomes an issue, and needs to be periodically redone to account for population shifts.

And there’s simply no need for any of this. There’s a coherent, if bad, argument for not trying for proportionality at all and just relying on single-member districts, as Australia does. But once you’ve introduced a proportional element, where’s the logic in not applying it to the whole country?

Note that this is different from the question of whether or not MPs represent particular geographical areas. Germany and New Zealand, for example, have single-member districts in addition to the proportional seats, in what is sometimes called a “mixed” system. But the proportionality applies nationwide – the constituency voting helps determine who your local member is, but it doesn’t affect the national balance of parties at all.

Does anyone seriously suggest that Austria, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Sweden, which have genuine proportional representation, have been worse governed as a result than, say, Belgium, Czechia, Iceland, Finland, Poland and Spain, which have the ersatz version?

Parties, however, have to take the electoral system as they find it. Poland has an unpleasant government, and will probably have it for another four years at least, but it remains a democracy. The opposition will have a renewed ability to hold Kaczyński to account.

And for a final piece of good news, Sunday’s local elections in Hungary saw substantial gains for the opposition, which won a majority on the Budapest city council and the mayoralty in Budapest and about half of Hungary’s major cities. Politico calls it “Viktor Orbán[‘s] … biggest political setback in a decade,” and for a country that has travelled further down the authoritarian road than Poland has, it’s certainly a welcome sign.

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