In a referendum on September 6th 2015, Poles answered three questions. The first one, causing the most controversy, concerned the introduction of single member districts (SMD) in elections to the Polish Sejm (lower house of parliament), while the other two addressed changes to campaign finance regulations and the tax code. The referendum is part of the Polish “super election year” 2015. It was announced during the spring presidential campaign and its failure may impact the outcome of the October parliamentary elections.
The Side-Product of the Presidential Election
The referendum was proposed by then-President Bronisław Komorowski after the first round of the Polish presidential election. Komorowski, representing the centrist Civic Platform (PO), which had also appointed the Prime Ministers for the last eight years, faced a seemingly certain reelection. He led in the polls and was viewed as the most trusted politician. His unexpectedly weak performance in the first round – he lost 33.77% to 34.76% to Andrzej Duda of the national-conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) – came as a surprise. One of the reasons for Komorowski’s ultimate defeat was the strong performance of the third-ranked candidate, Paweł Kukiz, whose main campaign pledge was the introduction of SMD in Sejm elections. In a bid to attract Kukiz’s voters in the second round, Komorowski announced his idea of a referendum. Komorowski’s electoral plans failed. He lost in the second round by a narrow margin to Duda (48.45% to 51.55%). By that time, the PO-dominated Senate (upper house of the parliament) had already passed the motion for the referendum sponsored by the President.
In the months after the presidential election, interest in the referendum as well as support for the political movement of Paweł Kukiz dwindled. To render the results of the referendum legally binding, the law requires that at least 50% of registered voters turn out to vote. On Sunday September 6th, voter turnout reached a meager 7.8%. It was lower than in any other nationwide referendum since 1989. The magnitude of the disaster is illustrated by the fact that it surpassed the low turnout record of 32.40% held by a referendum sponsored by President Lech Wałęsa in 1995. The vote was ignored by the national-conservative opposition and boycotted by both the liberal press and left-of-the-center parties. For the movement of Paweł Kukiz, the failure of the referendum might signal imminent demise. Also, the ruling PO, which reluctantly supported Komorowski’s idea, may be counted among the losers. Its chances to compete with the PiS as the leading party in public opinion polls now look bleaker than ever before.
Preferential List Proportional Representation vs. Single Member District Electoral Systems
One of the problems of the SMD referendum was the ambiguity concerning its political consequences. Supporters of SMD were unable to explain to voters exactly what electoral system they intended to introduce. While former president Komorowski argued in favor of the mixed-member proportional system modelled after the German Bundestag electoral law, the followers of Paweł Kukiz remained vague. They seemed, however, to prefer the plurality rule used in UK parliamentary elections. As their main motivation for the change, SMD supporters cited the excessive strength of political parties. In their view, the adoption of SMD would result in the increased personalization of Polish politics. They failed to acknowledge, however, that preferential list proportional representation (PR) currently in use for the Polish Sejm elections offers voters a wide selection of candidates – wider than that usually found in countries using the SMD. Below we offer some insights from our study of preferential list PR electoral systems (Marcinkiewicz and Stegmaier 2015) relevant for the debate on the introduction of the SMD in Poland.
The main parties that won seats in the 2011 Polish parliamentary election had between 12 and 40 candidates listed on their district ballots. The shortest list of candidates proposed by any of the minor parties consisted of 9 names. As a result, on Election Day, Polish voters received ballot papers (or to be more precise, ballot booklets) listing between 109 and 292 candidates per district. Due to the cognitive costs of selecting one name from a long list of party candidates, we observe strong ballot position effects. Candidates occupying psychologically prominent positions on the party list, specifically at the top or near the top of the ballot, have higher chances of being elected. Nevertheless, the relationship between ballot position and electoral success is not deterministic. Of the 460 members of the Polish Sejm, 392 were placed by their parties in the upper quarter of the party ballot. The other 68 managed to enter the parliament from positions in the lower three quarters of the list, including 17 who were ranked in the lower half of the list.
Despite strong ballot position effects, Poles, through the power of their compulsory preference vote, eagerly change the final ranking of their parties’ candidates. In the 2011 Sejm elections, 84.41 % of candidates moved up or down the list due to preference votes, resulting in different final positions than the ones assigned by their parties. All in all, it is difficult to get elected to the Sejm from lower positions on the party list, but it is not impossible.
The Real Problem: Deficient Intra-Party Democracy
The most shocking aspect of the Polish referendum on SMD is that it was not preceded by any deeper reflection on the effects of the current preferential list PR system and consequences of replacing it with some form of SMD. Its announcement was a result of the complete misunderstanding of why voters supported the presidential bid of the rock musician Kukiz. It was also disastrous for Kukiz himself, since he interpreted his surprising first round performance as support for SMD. The public mood changed and enthusiasm for SMD disappeared as quickly as it emerged. Kukiz owes his success to an active social media campaign which attracted mostly younger, urban voters. Like many other internet phenomena, he became a political star overnight, but shortly afterwards his supporters dispersed like a flash mob.
The good news for Poland is that a well-functioning electoral system remains in place. In order to improve party responsiveness to citizen problems, Poland needs transparent rules governing candidate nominations and sustainable party membership policies more than it needs a new electoral system. Polish parties in their current form operate as small elitist groups with few members and strongly hierarchical structures. They are usually run in a top-down manner, which reflects the fact that two major parties were founded in parliament as splinter groups of other factions whereas two others emerged from parties existing under Communist rule. Their lists of candidates are either created through the interplay between the regional party oligarchy and the party leadership (e.g. PO) or are in practice the exclusive domain of the party leadership (e.g. PiS). If deficiencies in intra-party democracy are not addressed, no electoral system change will improve the quality of democratic representation in Poland.
Read more about different types of preferential-list PR in our study:
Marcinkiewicz, K., Stegmaier S. “Ballot Position Effects under Compulsory and Optional Preferential-List PR Electoral Systems”, Political Behavior vol. 37 (June 2015): 465-486.