Electoral Systems

Poland: Between Fragmentation and Polarisation

By Jasiewicz, Krzysztof

The June 1989 elections in Poland played pivotal role in the collapse of communist regimes across Central and Eastern Europe. These elections came about as a result of negotiations between Polish Communists and the Solidarity-led opposition, finalised by the so-called Roundtable Accord in April 1989. The Accord set up a unique (and designed for a singular use only) system of "compartmentalised" elections, with 65 percent of the 460 seats in the Sejm allocated in advance to the Communists and their allies, and the remaining 35 percent subjected to an open contest. In addition, the upper chamber of parliament, the Senate, was re-established, with 100 seats to be filled in a free, unrestricted election - the first fully free and fair election in Eastern Europe in more than 40 years. In the elections, held on June 4 and June 18, 1989, Solidarity won all but one of the seats it contested. The communists acquired their allocated seats in the Sejm, but none in the Senate. The outcome of this election reflected the high level of political polarisation in Poland throughout the 1980's.

The Sejm

The parliament, elected in 1989 to a four-year term, as early as 1990 became obsolete. Being still dominated by the people of the old regime, with apparently slim chances for reelection, it did not go without hesitation, but eventually the date of new elections was set for October 27, 1991. After a long debate, the new electoral law for the elections to the Sejm was adopted by that House on June 28, 1991. Participants of this debate had their overt and covert agendas, and often changed their positions. In general, the post-communist majority in the Sejm, together with some post-Solidarity groupings was in favour of proportional representation, while others (President Walesa and the major post-Solidarity parties) advocated various mixed electoral systems. The rule of the thumb was the stronger the party and the more popular its leaders, the less likely it was to opt for a pure Proportional Representation (PR). Eventually, the considerations stemming from the uncertainty of the election outcome prevailed in deputies' minds, and for the Sejm election a PR system was adopted.

In the system adopted in 1991, the country was divided to 37 districts, with from seven to 17 seats in each, determined according to population. To register its list in a district, a party had to collect at least 5,000 signatures of voters resident in the given district. Seats in the districts were allocated to the parties through the Hare-Niemeyer method, with no threshold. Out of the total 460 seats, 69 were awarded (through the modified Sainte-Lagu method) on a nation-wide base to each of those parties, which: (a) registered a national list (for which a party had to register its list in at least five districts by collecting 5,000 voters' signatures in each), and (b) surpassed the threshold of five percent nationally and/or managed to have their candidates elected in at least five districts. These thresholds were waived as far as the representation of ethnic minorities was concerned. Voters in each district were to show their preference by selecting one party list and placing a check beside the name of the candidate for whom they wished to vote.

The political dichotomy of the 1989 election (Solidarity vs. the old regime), in 1991 was replaced by a highly fragmented polity, with more than 100 parties and quasi-parties contesting both the Senate and the Sejm elections. The elections resulted in a highly fragmented parliament, with the strongest party in the Sejm controlling a mere 13.5 percent of the seats, and no majority coalition of fewer than five parties possible. Altogether, 18 parties and groupings mustered at least two seats each, and additional 11 one seat each. The actual number of actors in the Sejm was in fact lower, due to mergers and coalitions. This parliament in two years managed to generate three Prime Ministers, two governments, and its own early departure, after accepting a motion of non-confidence in Hanna Suchocka government in May 1993. President Walesa, having a choice between dismissing the government or dissolving the parliament chose the latter. Among the last bills approved by the departing Sejm were amendments to the electoral law.

The amendments adopted by the outgoing parliament were designed to limit fragmentation by eliminating weaker parties from the Sejm. Specifically, three devices were put in place: (1) a threshold of five percent for parties and eight percent for coalitions, nation-wide (also the threshold for national list was raised from five percent to seven percent); (2) an increase in the number of districts, from 37 to 52, expanding district magnitude to three to 17 seats; (3) implementation of the D'Hondt formula, advantageous to stronger parties, for allocation of all seats. Support for these amendments among the parties correlated in an obvious (positive) manner with their strength in the outgoing Sejm. For some of the parties that supported the amendments this decision was self-destructive, as only one coalition and five parties surpassed in the Sejm elections the prescribed thresholds.

Thus the electoral reform gave the expected results: the stronger parties were awarded additional seats, the weakest were altogether eliminated from the Sejm. While the fragmentation of the parliament has been overcome, it has been achieved on the expense of serious distortions of proportionality. The ruling leftist coalition that emerged after the election received together only 36 percent of the votes but commanded a majority of 66 percent of the seats. With 34 percent of the votes "wasted" for the parties not represented in the Sejm (mostly from the right side of the political spectrum), the parliament elected in 1993 was perceived as not fully legitimate: it represented (since the turnout was at the 52.1 percent level) only 34 percent of the eligible voters. Thus one potential (and between 1991 and 1993 actual) dysfunction of the democratic order, unstable governments generated by a fragmented parliament, has been replaced in 1993 by another one: a stable government without sufficient legitimacy.

This potential deficiency has been removed in the wake of the most recent, September 21, 1997 elections, conducted according to the same as in 1993 rules. While only five parties and coalitions cleared the thresholds this time, they represented 87.8 percent of all valid votes (with the turnout of 47.93 percent). More importantly, the political balance returned to the Sejm, since several parties of the fragmented right united this time under the Electoral Action Solidarity (AWS) umbrella and won plurality of votes, to form a right-of-centre government with the liberal-democratic Freedom Union. However, the competition of the two major coalitions, the post-communist SLD on the left, and the AWS on the right, led to the weakened support for the centrist parties, and to the re-polarisation of the polity along ideological lines.

The Senate

Since 1989, the voting districts in the Senate elections have been based on geography, with two senators elected in each of 47 out of the 49 Poland's provinces. Only the two most populous provinces have been given three senatorial seats each. Senators are elected by a candidate-centred bloc vote, see Block Vote . In 1989, a majority was needed to win a seat (with a run-off two weeks after the first round). For the subsequent (1991, 1993, 1997) Senate elections the run-off round was abolished (plurality vote replaced majority vote). Interestingly, the level of fragmentation, and - with only minor deviations - the political composition of the Senate have been since 1991 parallel to the party composition of the Sejm.

Presidential and Local Elections

Since 1990, President of the Republic of Poland is elected by a popular vote. If in the first round none of the candidates gains majority, a run-off among two top candidates takes place two weeks later. In the 1995 election, which featured a tight race between the incumbent Lech Walesa and the eventual winner Aleksander Kwasniewski, this arrangement contributed to the re-polarisation of the political spectrum.

In local elections two systems are used in a parallel way: First Past The Post (FPTP) in rural communities and in cities below 40,000 inhabitants, and a party-list PR in cities with more than 40,000 inhabitants.

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