Source:, author Robert Wielgorski

Election After the election: Poland 2011

From a party-political perspective, the election has seen at least a partial consolidation of the pattern of competition. Although the spectacular arrival of a new party, the pro-market and libertarian Palikot Movement (Ruch Palikota, RP) represents a new locus of ideological identification in this structure, the surprise of its emergence should not lead to the rash drawing of conclusions as to its present relevance or future prospects. When the novelty of Palikot's triumph has worn off, the governing liberal-conservative Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO) - and Tusk in particular - will remain the real winners of this election.

Published on on November 4, 2011

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The Polish parliamentary elections of Sunday 9 October resulted in an impressive victory for the governing liberal-conservative Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO) over its main rival, the conservative-nationalist Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS). PO becomes the first Polish governing party since the fall of communism to return to power. Although the race between the two main parties was – at least according to some polling agencies – substantially closer than expected given PO’s advantage over PiS for much of the parliamentary term, the two-month campaign was relatively uneventful, and the margin of victory was thus a surprise to most observers. The election also saw the further decline of the social-democratic post-communist successor party Democratic Left Alliance (Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej, SLD) and the spectacular arrival of a new party, the pro-market and libertarian Palikot Movement (Ruch Palikota, RP).

Election results

The results suggest at least partial consolidation of the competitive structure. Both major parties and the junior coalition partner, the Polish Peasant Party (Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe, PSL), lost only a small percentage of their votes and seats. The emergence of RP and decline of SLD are clearly consequential, but they do not significantly alter the main dynamic of the party system. For all the attention spent on the emergence of RP, it should be borne in mind that they gained 3% fewer votes than the third party in 2007. The rivalry between PO and PiS remains the most salient aspect of political competition, a fact reinforced when we consider the regional distribution of votes and their translation into seats. The last row of Table 1 shows the estimated share of seats if the 2011 national-level results were translated into seat shares in accordance with constituency-level shares of the vote in 2007 (shares for RP are calculated as the opposite of those for PiS). The results are not substantially different from the actual share of seats, suggesting that patterns of regional strengths are robust to the emergence of a new party.

Table 1: Vote and seat shares in Sejm (turnout 48.92%)

Vote% 39.18(-2.33) 29.89(-2.22) 10.02(+10.02) 8.36(-0.55) 8.24(-4.90) 2.19(+2.19) 0.20(0.00)
Seats 207(-2) 157(-9) 40(+40) 28(-3) 27(-26) 0(0) 1(0)
Seats (2007 weights) 205 162 37 29 26 0 1

Source: Polish Electoral Commission,, accessed 01.11.2011

Notes: PJN refers to Poland Comes First (Polska Jest Najważniejsza), a centre-right party headed by former PiS deputies who left that party after the 2010 presidential election. MN refers to the German Minority (Mniejszość Niemiecka), a regional party of the German minority in the Silesian region, whose exemption from the 5% national threshold brings it at least one parliamentary seat. In 2007, SLD was the dominant party in the electoral coalition Left and Democrats (Lewica i Demokraci, LiD); change in votes and seats is calculated on the basis of the results for LiD.

The results of the 2007 parliamentary elections and 2010 presidential election lent some support to the notion of an emerging ‘transition proto-cleavage’ in which PO and PiS gave expression to the interests and identifications of socio-demographic cohorts divided by the politics of liberal democratic transition. This divide was referred to by some in economic terms as ‘Poland A’ versus ‘Poland B’, or ‘wealth-generating’ versus ‘social-transfer’ Poland, but it also reflected contrasting attitudes to national identity and relatively different levels of religiosity and attachment to traditional values. The divide was most clearly expressed with respect to two key demographic variables: residence and education, the persistent importance of which was confirmed by exit poll results.[1]

Three-quarters of those voting for PO voters live in towns and cities, against 59% for PiS. PO is significantly more popular among those with secondary and higher education, whereas PiS is more popular among those with primary and vocational education. Age is somewhat less differentiated. Whereas PiS’s appeal is more substantial among older age cohorts, PO appeals quite evenly across cohorts of voters older than 26. Popularity among the youngest age cohort appears to explain much of RP’s success, with the party attracting nearly a quarter of those aged between 18 and 25.

As Figure 1 shows, the results of these elections indicated the continuing relevance of the geographical divide commented upon in previous years, a divide which corresponds to the historical partitions of occupied Poland and which in a number of respects is consequential for the socio-demographic divides identified above. Support for PO is clearly higher in regions of the former Prussian partition, whose levels of economic development exceeded those of regions in the former Austrian and Russian partitions, where support for PiS is more substantial. The more intense support for PiS in the south-east reflects the particular significance of traditional values and religiosity in that region, with parts of Poland under the Austrian partition enjoying more freedom to preserve elements of national identity and culture. Colour-coded maps can exaggerate the real extent of differences, and it is notable that even within the region dominated by PiS, major towns and cities tended to prefer PO. However, an east-west divide has the potential to persist, not only for historical reasons but also in light of the greater economic potential of the western half of Poland.

Another aspect of the election results is worthy of comment: the failure of the new 35% gender quota to have a substantial impact. In the incoming parliament, only 24% of deputies will be female, an increase of only 4% on the outgoing one. None of the parties fielding candidates in all constituencies struggled – as some had argued they might – to find sufficient women candidates to occupy places on the party lists; however, they were largely reluctant to put them in ‘winning’ positions. Although Polish election lists are nominally open, in practice they are treated by voters as closed, with the overwhelming majority of seats won by candidates in the top few list places. With the gender quota law making no provision for list placement, the chances for women candidates to win seats remained in the hands of those drawing up the lists. By adopting a regulation that at least one candidate in the top three and two in the top five of each party list must be a woman, PO was the only party to reach the 35% total. PiS opposed the introduction of the quota and put a substantially lower number of women candidates in winning positions; only 17% of their deputies in the new parliament are women. Despite running the largest proportion of women candidates (44% of the total), women deputies only number 15% of SLD’s total. RP and PSL fare even worse, with 12% and 7% respectively. While this is hardly unexpected in the case of the traditionalist and anti-quota PSL, the low number of women deputies in RP is somewhat contrary both to its progressivist image and its avowed support for legal parity of list placements.

Figure 1: Distribution of votes at the county [powiat] level (2011 parliamentary elections)

Source:, author Robert Wielgorski

The consequences

The margin of victory confirms prime minister Donald Tusk’s pre-eminence within the party, and although there have been post-election manoeuvrings within the party hierarchy, it is highly unlikely that he will face a challenge to his leadership in the near future. Although all three minor parties were in a position to form a two-party coalition with PO, it quickly became clear that Tusk would not undertake any experiments. Indeed, such was Tusk’s preference for continuation that in a post-election interview he announced his wish that the current government continue in office until the end of the year, thus avoiding disruption to the Polish presidency of the EU. This move raised the eyebrows of constitutionalists and earned Tusk a rebuke from President Bronisław Komorowski, who was quick to issue a reminder that he had yet to exercise his prerogative to nominate a candidate for prime minister. Coalition negotiations between PO and PSL are still ongoing, but there is no reason to doubt that those two parties will form the next government. While PSL – which had hoped, on the basis of promising results in the 2010 local elections, to win at least 12% of the votes – will be disappointed not to have a higher standing in parliament, they can nevertheless be reassured by the failure of PiS to make significant inroads into their predominantly rural constituency.

PiS faces a more turbulent period. While the results confirmed that the party has a substantial and disciplined core of supporters, it clearly struggles to build on that support. PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński shows no sign of relinquishing his position as party leader, signalling in his concession speech a renewed determination to follow the example of Viktor Orban in Hungary and plot a spectacular return from two terms in opposition. However, this seems an implausible outcome given that Kaczyński’s uncompromising approach to his political vision and penchant for aggressive rhetoric are conducive neither to broadening the party’s appeal nor to making it more coalitionable. Kaczyński’s apparent unwillingness even to discuss these problems, much less to address them, has spurred a dissenting current within the party – led by MEP and former Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro – to mount the first open rebellion against his leadership, issuing veiled threats to secede and form a new party. At the time of writing, the rebels’ future remains unresolved, but the ‘Ziobrites’ [Ziobryści] will continue to pose a problem for PiS, whether from within or from without.

The success of RP was the focus of much attention, not only for its meteoric rise in the last weeks of the campaign but also for its genuine newness in personnel and policies. A number of RP deputies have no previous political experience, and owe their election largely to their links with party leader Janusz Palikot – indeed, a neighbour of Palikot won a seat with a campaign run at the cost of only 3000 złoty (680€). The party also boasts Poland’s first openly gay deputy, and the only trans-gender deputy currently in parliament anywhere. This quantum of sexual uncertainty has alarmed conservative currents already concerned at the anti-clerical stance of the party. While elements of the post-communist SLD were openly antagonistic toward the Church in the early years of transition, in general the party sought the path of accommodation rather than confrontation. The Palikot Movement is qualitatively new, in the sense that the party itself is anti-clerical. Palikot wasted no time in underlining this, announcing his intention to lobby the Speaker for the removal of a cross from the wall of the parliament.

It remains to be seen whether RP is able to consolidate itself as something more than a support vehicle for its mercurial leader, but it will certainly introduce a new element of unpredictability to the new parliament. The evident pleasure Palikot derives from goading PiS will give PO the opportunity to stand aside from the to-and-fro of emotional polemic, and they may also benefit from defections from RP if Palikot’s leadership style becomes too overbearing. However, RP’s position as an ‘opposition within the opposition’ is potentially troublesome for PO. While in the previous parliament advocates of economic liberalism were noisy but containable, existing either on the margins of PO itself or in media and thinktanks, in the new parliament the government will approach the next wave of economic crisis with its programme attacked from both sides. PiS will not hesitate to exploit the social consequences of liberalising reforms, but RP can be expected to attack PO for a lack of reformist zeal.

The formerly dominant SLD, which boasted 41% of the vote only ten years ago, is now the smallest party. Its lamentable electoral performance has already led to the departure of leader Grzegorz Napieralski, and uncertainty remains about the future of the party itself. The choice of ex-prime minister Leszek Miller as leader of the parliamentary club is indicative of the problem – although Miller offers the kind of aggressive, bullish leadership the party lacked under Napieralski and his similarly youthful predecessor Wojciech Olejniczak, his selection is testimony to the absence of credible younger leaders. The choice of Miller has already cost the SLD one defection to RP, and it can be expected that Palikot will attempt to harvest more. Unless the party swiftly finds a direction, a purpose, and more encouraging polling figures, it will continue to leak voters in all directions: economic social-liberals to PO and RP, cultural liberals and anti-clericals to RP, and its working-class base to PiS.

From a party-political perspective, the election has seen at least a partial consolidation of the pattern of competition. Although RP represents a new locus of ideological identification in this structure, the surprise of its emergence should not lead to the rash drawing of conclusions as to its present relevance or future prospects. When the novelty of Palikot’s triumph has worn off, PO – and Tusk in particular – will remain the real winners of this election. However, if they want to retain many of the voters who stood loyal to them, they will have to make tangible progress with their agenda for reform. The looming presence of the European economic crisis suggests that this will not be the easiest of tasks.


  1. (2011), ‘Wyborcza demografia. Którą partię wolą kobiety, a na kogo zagłosowali mieszkańcy wsi?’,118281,10440924,Wyborcza_demografia__Ktora_partie_wola_kobiety__a.html (accessed 24.10.2011).
  • lushfun

    I think it has more to do with age distribution of the population the conservatives got more votes in regions with overall older populations. You can see this by large metropolitan areas where age distribution is more diverse going to the moderates.
    I doubt the regions that were wiped clear of their infrastructure themselves have more to do with than people. Yes there is more interconnection and trade in the seaports and border with Germany which imputes on people's livelihoods and impacts their voting with their wallet as they say here in the states… Its not the land its the people…

  • Péter Balogh

    The continued impact of the pre-WWI German border is really amazing (even with the exaggerations of colour-coded maps), not least given the almost complete reshuffling of the population after WWII.

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