Election Pre-election in Poland

Next Sunday's Polish parliamentary election is, on current evidence, too close to call. This is somewhat unexpected – in contrast with the majority of its predecessors in the post-communist era, the coalition government of the liberal-conservative Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO) and the Polish Peasant Party (Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe, PSL) has enjoyed higher levels of public approval than disapproval, and for much of its tenure looked set to become the first government in post-communist Poland to win a second term.

Published on balticworlds.com on October 7, 2011

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Next Sunday’s Polish parliamentary election is, on current evidence, too close to call. This is somewhat unexpected – in contrast with the majority of its predecessors in the post-communist era, the coalition government of the liberal-conservative Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO) and the Polish Peasant Party (Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe, PSL) has enjoyed higher levels of public approval than disapproval, and for much of its tenure looked set to become the first government in post-communist Poland to win a second term. With the PSL remaining largely a niche agrarian party, and the social-democratic Democratic Left Alliance (Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej, SLD) unable to re-establish itself as a major player, it seemed that Poland’s still-inchoate party system was crystallising into something more substantial and predictable. However, the election campaign, while uneventful with respect to issues and debates, has brought about a renewed sense of uncertainty.

On the one hand, closer attention to opinion polls and the volatility of Polish voting behaviour has put into question the extent of the advantage that PO was widely assumed to enjoy over its nearest competitor, the conservative-nationalist Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS). On the other, the meteoric rise of the Palikot Movement (Ruch Palikota, RP) – a party founded by disaffected former PO deputy Janusz Palikot – has given the lie to claims by minor political actors – RP among them – that Polish party politics has ossified as a result of party cartelisation and the political ‘capture’ of mainstream media. The banda czworga (group of four) no longer looks quite as impregnable.

The expectation of continuity reflected both long-term trends and short-term developments in Polish politics. In the long-term context, the ‘regime divide’ between post-Communist and post-Solidarity parties that prevailed in the first decade of transition is now dormant, if not yet entirely extinct. Poland’s ‘populist moment’ of 2006 – 2007 was the catalyst for a shifting of the tectonic plates, with the key line of division now reflective of attitudes to the politics of transition. Both governing parties and the SLD lay claim to the political and institutional legacies of the 1989 Round Table settlement that paved the way for transition to democracy in Poland. While in more recent years PiS has shied away from explicitly rejecting the legitimacy of that settlement, its political programme is founded on the contention that Poland requires significant constitutional reforms substantially more attuned to Polish history, identity and national interest than those of liberal-democratic ‘imitative modernisation’. At its broadest, the political divide in Poland runs along the integration-demarcation divide Kriesi et al. (2006) identify as increasingly important in Western European politics.[1] In the shorter term, there have been few reasons to doubt the continued importance of this ‘transition divide’. The death of President Lech Kaczyński and scores of Polish politicians and dignitaries in the Smolensk tragedy of April 2010 might have been a catalyst for reconciliation across the political divide, but the ensuing presidential election and Russian-led investigation of the crash served only to deepen and entrench the ill-feeling, both at the level of political elites and among the core supporters of the major parties.

The election of former PO deputy and speaker of parliament Bronisław Komorowski as president came at an inconvenient time for the governing coalition, removing its primary excuse for policy inaction – the threat of presidential veto – at the very point in the electoral cycle when governments are apt to rein in potentially controversial and vote-losing reforms. The coalition’s attempts to rationalise their caution as a deliberate policy of ‘government by small steps’ have failed to placate many of those who voted for PO in 2007 expecting radical reforms to public finances, reform of the tottering healthcare and social security systems, an end to tax and retirement privileges for sectors of the workforce, and significant cuts in state bureaucracy. However, this is a cohort whose voice in the media is out of proportion to its overall significance. Previous governments failed with the public as a result either of economic downturns or the impression left by radical but incompetently-handled reforms – in some cases, both. Poland’s relatively good economic performance against the backdrop of recession-hit Europe and the PO-PSL government’s lack of reformist zeal has insulated it from sharp drops in public approval.

The election campaign has, for the most part, been as colourless as the last 18 months of the parliamentary term. While PO dropped its once-flagship call to institute a flat tax and the SLD moved more explicitly to the left, party programmes were more notable for their un-costed promises than for any dramatic policy innovations. Some expected the Polish EU presidency to play a disruptive role in the election campaign, calling for early elections to ensure no repeat of the political chaos that accompanied –  and was exacerbated by – the Czech presidency. However, these fears have not materialised.

In many respects, more attention has been paid to the ‘meta-campaign’ over the electoral law and the conduct of the campaign itself. Just prior to the start of the campaign, the Constitutional Court ruled that a section of the new electoral law providing for two-day voting was unconstitutional. While PO argued that the law would improve Poland’s notoriously low turnout, PiS raised the spectre of overnight election fraud. Much debate was also occasioned by the introduction of new legal gender quotas stipulating that both genders must be allotted at least 35 percent of the places on party lists. After sustained pressure by women’s groups a bill prepared on a citizens’ initiative was passed into law at the beginning of 2011. However, the potential impact of the bill was dented by the lack of requirements for list placement. In theory, Poland’s electoral system is open-list; in practice the lists are quasi-closed, with the vast majority of deputies elected from the top few places. The placement of women candidates in ‘viable’ list slots would depend on the whims of the party executive, and the registered lists largely failed to placate those advocates of quotas who were critical of the law’s perceived deficiencies.

Much of the first month of the campaign was taken up with the ‘debate over the debate’, in which PO’s prime minister Donald Tusk fruitlessly attempted to entice PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński into a televised head-to-head. Kaczyński attempted to couch his refusal to participate in statesmanlike disdain for the ‘fog of absurdity’ emitted by PO’s public relations operations, PO countering with accusations of cowardice.[2] A series of subsequent debates has pitted ministers against their opposition counterparts, but the campaign has lacked a defining contretemps between the two leaders. In the last week, both have intensified their rhetoric, Kaczyński reviving arguments about the supplicant attitude of PO to the German government and Tusk raising the spectre of PiS’s return to radicalism. Yet Tusk’s late-campaign peregrinations on the ‘Tuskobus’ and Kaczyński’s ‘victory ride’ in a train to Gdańsk are emblematic of the dissociated, parallel nature of the major parties’ campaigns. The PSL has run a quiet campaign, while the SLD’s uncoordinated flailing about for a theme was exemplified in party leader Grzegorz Napieralski’s query of Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski during a televised debate as to whether he knew the price of hot-dog sausages.

The most dramatic element of the campaign has been the rise of RP, whose flamboyant leader Palikot is a specialist in provocation whose past antics include enlivening media conferences with a pig’s head and rubber penises and whose anti-clericalist rhetoric has irritated the Church and attracted the young in equal measure. Like another political showman, the controversial populist and former deputy prime minister Andrzej Lepper – who committed suicide shortly before the campaign in circumstances that remain unexplained – Palikot’s antics ensure media interest and visibility. However, it remains to be seen just how much of his party’s current standing is down to genuine disaffection with PO among young urban liberals, and how much will evaporate at the polls when voters outside Palikot’s Warsaw constituency are faced with a list of unknowns.

Indeed, predicting the outcome of this election is fraught with uncertainty. The continuing volatility of Polish voters is reflected in the fact that approximately 25% of those declaring an intention to vote are undecided as to who they will vote for. The often substantial differences between the results of leading polling agencies are in large part attributable to how they handle this uncertainty. Leading agencies CBOS and TNS OBOP opt to preserve it at the polling stage. While this strategy means that the results are more reliable as surveys of declared electoral intentions, translating them into electoral prognoses is usually achieved by the methodologically dubious method of allotting the cohort of the undecided to parties in proportion to the share of support those parties achieve among ‘decideds’. The agency SMG/KRC seeks to minimise indecision at the survey stage by a two-stage eliciting of party choice: firstly, recording the answers of those who give a spontaneous response; secondly, prompting the respondent by reading out a list of the parties participating in the election in their constituency. SMG/KRC claims that ‘[t]his method reflects the situation in which those who are not especially interested in politics … nevertheless decide to participate in the elections and make their choice ‘at the urn’ from among the available options.’[3] Although SMG/KRC add the explicit disclaimer that their surveys are not to be treated as electoral prognoses,[4] they are nevertheless as close as Polish surveys get to ‘designing in’ election-day choice.

The plot below shows the results of SMG/KRC polls on voting intentions, conducted month by month since October 2010, and weekly since the beginning of September. These results are weighted for the two largest parties in accordance with the observation that support for PiS has consistently been underestimated by some 10 percent in such polls, and support for PO consistently overestimated by a similar margin.[5] The shaded areas are 95% confidence intervals. Three main conclusions can be drawn from these results. Firstly, since the beginning of 2011 there is no statistically robust difference between levels of support for PO and PiS. Secondly, the vote for the two minor parliamentary parties – SLD and PSL – is essentially stagnant, fluctuating only within a small margin. Thirdly, while the conservative Poland Comes First (Polska Jest Najważniejsza, PJN) has failed to translate the pedigree of its founders – escapees from the moderate wing of PiS – into electoral support, RP has surged to prominence over the last month of campaigning.

To estimate the share of seats, the average of the last five polls was used. This is more conservative  than using the most recent poll, but it makes prudent allowance for the volatility of Polish voters. In calculating seat share, it is necessary to account for constituency-level disparities in district magnitude and party support. This was achieved by weighting national-level survey results by the results of each party in a given constituency, and using those figures to determine how many seats a given party wins in that constituency. Since RP did not run in the previous election and its regional impact is uncertain, its weights were estimated by reversing those of PiS, with the rationale that since the party is the ideological and emotional ‘negative’ of PiS, it can plausibly be expected to be strong where PiS is weak, and vice versa. A third calculation of seats omits weights for RP, to account for the possibility that its current surge may turn out to be the epiphenomenon of a dull campaign.

Projected seat shares

National-level 167 176 52 30 34 0 1
Regionally weighted 179 197 45 17 21 0 1
Regionally weighted, except RP 178 198 45 17 21 0 1


The projected results show what a difference regional voting patterns might make to the distribution of seats. If Poland were treated as one single constituency with 460 seats, then PiS would enjoy a small majority of seats. However, if voting patterns were to follow those of the previous election, then PiS would benefit to a greater extent than PO. The most plausible explanation for this is that PiS are more likely to pick up seats where PSL is weaker, while PO should benefit from the regional weakness of RP, and both should benefit from the regional weakness of SLD. However, such a conclusion requires a more thorough inspection of the data. Notably, the simulated regional differentiation of RP’s vote makes virtually no difference to an unweighted calculation, perhaps because PO – with whom RP is competing for votes – is also stronger in those constituencies where PiS is weaker.

While the degree of undecidedness and the volatility of Polish voters should caution against giving too much credence to these estimates, they help to illustrate the extent of post-election uncertainty over coalition formation. Both PO and PiS will have to negotiate with two partners to obtain a majority of seats, and no combination is likely to provide either major party with the stability or ideological compatibility needed to pursue their agendas. Nomination of the prime minister lies within the remit of President Komorowski. Theoretically, he may decide to re-nominate PO’s Tusk in spite of a small numerical disadvantage, on the basis that PO has greater coalition potential. However, it is more likely that in such circumstances Komorowski would offer Kaczyński the first opportunity to put together a coalition, since to do otherwise would be regarded as an act of political partisanship.

Nevertheless, PiS faces significant difficulties in constructing a coalition. For reasons both of ideological incompatibility and Palikot’s history of provocative – and often gratuitously offensive – comments about both Kaczyński brothers, RP can safely be ruled out. Coalition with PSL is more plausible both on ideological and temperamental grounds, and its rural constituency is a tempting target for PiS strategists. However, on the current evidence these parties lack the seats for a majority coalition. Only SLD offer PiS the opportunity for a majority. Although Napieralski has refused to rule out such an outcome, and there are plausible points of agreement on economic policy, the vociferously anti-communist stance of PiS makes the very opening of such a coalition seem unlikely, to say nothing of its durability. For his part, Kaczyński has repeatedly rejected the idea of a coalition with SLD, despite more encouraging noises from younger and less stridently anti-communist members of the party.

PO is likely to have more success in forming a coalition, but not the one of its choosing. During the campaign, both PO and PSL have indicated that their objective is to continue the current coalition, and have refrained from open attacks on each other. However, on the above results it looks likely that PO will not be able to form a two-party coalition. A PO-SLD-PSL coalition promises greater stability than a PO-SLD-PN coalition given Palikot’s mercurial tendencies and evident ambition for higher office. However, the presence of SLD in either configuration would represent a blow to any intentions PO may harbour of pursuing more concerted economic reforms in a new parliamentary term, with SLD having shifted notably leftwards in the face of the economic crisis.

In the absence of any last-minute surprises, it is safe to make only one unqualified prediction: the month following the 9th of October will be substantially more interesting than the one preceding it.


  1. See H-P Kriesi et al (2006), 'Globalization and the transformation of the national political space: Six European countries compared', European Journal of Political Research, 45: 921-956.
  2.  'Nie będe debatował w oparach absurdu', interview with Jarosław Kaczyński,  Uwazam Rze 25 September 2011, http://uwazamrze.pl/2011/09/15719/nie-bede-debatowal-w-oparach-absurdu/ (accessed 30 September 2011).
  3. Millward Brown SMG/KRC, 'Niezdecydowani', http://wybory.smgkrc.pl/metodologia-sondazy/nowypage-8/ (accessed 2 October 2011).
  4. Millward Brown SMG/KRC, 'Prognoza wyborcza', http://wybory.smgkrc.pl/metodologia-sondazy/nowypage-5/ (accessed 2 October 2011).
  5. Mirosław Szreder, Rzeczpospolita 21 July 2011, http://www.rp.pl/artykul/9157,690624-Wybory-2011--PO-slabsza-niz-w-sondazach.html (accessed 2 October 2011).
  6. 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.
  • Péter Balogh

    Thanks for an interesting and comprehensive analysis! It's a pity foreign policy is rather limited in the campaign, but apparently it wasn't the only such field then.. Here is a little more on Kaczyński playing the German card again, for those interested: http://www.presseurop.eu/en/co

  • Ben Stanley

    “Both PO and PiS will have to negotiate with two partners to obtain a majority of seats, and no combination is likely to provide either major party with the stability or ideological compatibility needed to pursue their agendas.”Ignore this – it was based on an earlier draft and should have been edited out. The last round of polls suggest PO has had a better final week than PiS.

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