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Six theses on the parliamentary elections in Poland

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[Translate to en:] 13.Oktober 2019: Wahlen in Polen
[Translate to en:] Foto: Holger Politt

1. Undoubtedly, the most important result of the parliamentary elections in Poland on 13 October 2019 is the absolute majority won by Jarosław Kaczyński’s national-conservative party in the Sejm (lower house). Out of a total of 460 seats in the lower house, 235 will be allocated to the governing party. This will allow Kaczyński’s party to continue its single-party government in order to complete – as was repeatedly announced in the weeks leading up to the poll – the thorough restructuring of state and society in the interests of Polish families begun over the last four years. At the very end of the election campaign, Kaczyński stated in no uncertain terms that his government had been successful in publicly exposing all forces working with the enemies of Poland, and promised that they would continue to do so in the future. He was referring to his political opponents – which reveals among other things a very distinctive way of thinking. The re-election of Kaczyński’s party means that a large section of Polish society sees in such muscle-flexing rhetoric the best way to realize the grandiose promise of levels of economic development equivalent to the richer EU member states. Even if the PiS voter base is comprised of and nurtured by different motives and sources – and here it is worth mentioning important social factors such as statutory child allowance and additional monthly pension payments – party leader Kaczyński once again made clear how the votes would ultimately be used.

Holger Politt is Director of the RLS Regional Office in Warsaw. Translation by Kate Davison and Sam Langer for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

2. The turnout was 61.74 percent, the highest in 30 years. One of the reasons for this lies in the incredible polarization of public debate over the past four years, which Kaczyński has applauded. A leading liberal weekly paper hit the nail on the head with the headline ‘A Simple Choice – Black or White’. The victor of 13 October can thus proudly point to another landmark figure that no party has reached since 1989/90: 8.05 million votes were cast for the PiS in the Sejm elections, which accounts for 43.59 per cent of all votes cast. With this number of parliamentary seats, the PiS holds everyone else in check. However, a closer look at the numbers behind the seats won tells a different story. Unlike four years ago, when a combined total of 16 percent of the votes cast was not enough to win a single parliamentary seat, due to the failure to achieve mandatory percentage hurdles, after this latest election, 99 per cent of the votes cast are also represented in the new Sejm. Nationally there were five electoral lists, all of which made it into parliament. Four years ago, the PiS were beneficiaries of a high proportion of lost votes; this time they benefited from an opaque voting system that was difficult for voters to navigate. The four other electoral parties achieved a combined share of 55.32 per cent of votes cast yet won only 224 seats. Here, too, the actual number of votes is impressive: 10.2 million votes were explicitly not given to the national conservatives.

3. The broader goal of the national conservatives is constitutional amendment, or even the creation of a new constitution. The current constitution of 1997 is too liberal in their view; they denounce it as a post-communist imposition, unable to sufficiently protect the country and its citizens from foreign interference in national sovereignty and identity. The three parties expressly defending the current constitution – middle-class democrats, left-wing forces and moderate agrarians – reached a combined total of 8.95 million votes, a result well above the votes won by the national conservatives, even though this was only sufficient to win 213 seats. However, the PiS can also point to a new parliamentary party on their right – the so-called Confederation for Freedom and Independence (Konfederacja Wolność i Niepodległość) – which attracted at least 1.25 million votes, or 6.81 per cent of the votes cast. There is no doubt that the staunchly nationalist Confederation agrees with the PiS in its rejection of the 1997 constitution.

4. In the camp of the constitution-defending opposition, the core liberal coalition of middle-class democrats, as well as a broader coalition ranging from moderate conservatives to left-liberal and green groups, achieved a result below its own expectations at least, winning just 27.4 per cent of votes cast. Nonetheless, this mandate will be of central importance in any opposition to the conservative government; furthermore, it will be able to keep open the option of an alliance with the other two democratic factions in the opposition, which will play an important role in the presidential election in May 2020.

5. With 12.56 per cent of the votes cast, representing 49 seats in parliament, the allied left-wing forces succeeded in getting into parliament. The lack of left-wing representation in parliament in the previous legislative period had a noticeable effect; thus, a huge step has now been taken in terms of voicing opposition to the national-conservative agenda of the ruling PiS on the parliamentary stage. This underlines the fact that the focus of the new parliamentary left will be ideological issues and questions of freedom in modern society. How this will affect other issues important to the left such as social development, and how the left will interact with the liberal factions, which to be sure have a strong left-liberal wing, remains to be seen. For the time being, the left in Poland can be glad that the alliance – in some cases with totally dissimilar forces – provided some gains this summer.

6. An important achievement was the establishment of a democratic opposition in the Senate elections. Entering the upper house of the Polish parliament will be the single-ballot winners from a total of 100 constituencies. The three electoral parties of the democratic opposition agreed at an early stage to only put one candidate forward where possible, in order not to split the votes unnecessarily. This strategy was widely adopted and was ultimately successful; opposition forces will have 51 MPs in the newly elected Senate. This has symbolic meaning on the one hand; at the very least it is a small consolation for the defeat in the Sejm elections despite large gains in votes. Furthermore, it hampers the government’s work somewhat, because it means that future bills coming from the Sejm can no longer simply be quickly waved through the upper house – a common practice in the previous legislature – but will be able to be more thoroughly examined and, if necessary, referred back to the Sejm.