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2011 Polish Parliamentary Elections: Post Election Report

- October 11, 2011

We are pleased to Welcome “Ben Stanley”:http://www.politologia.wnhis.uksw.edu.pl/, an Adjunct Lecturer in Politics at the Institute for Political Science, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University, Warsaw, with the following post-election report on the 2011 Polish parliamentary elections.


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 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).

The background

The emotional divide between PO and PiS – once potential coalition partners but now sworn enemies – was deepened and entrenched by the presidential election and Russian-led investigation which followed the death of President Lech Kaczyński and scores of Polish politicians and dignitaries in the Smolensk tragedy of April 2010. However, Smolensk did not occupy a central place in the election campaign; with PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński mindful of the need to show the electorate a more conciliatory face, prominent PiS politicians associated with the ‘post-Smolensk’ narrative were shunted into the background. This, along with Kaczyński’s refusal to meet PO leader and current Polish premier Donald Tusk in debate, deprived the campaign of the emotional tensions and confrontational behaviour of the previous 18 months. Concerns that Poland’s assumption of the EU presidency would interfere with the campaign proved unfounded.

The other reason for the lack of colour was the absence of significant new ideas from the parliamentary parties: PiS, PO, SLD and the junior coalition partner, the agrarian Polish Peasant Party (Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe, PSL). With the ‘regime divide’ between post-communist and post-Solidarity formations moribund, the main dividing line in Polish politics runs between different conceptions of the politics of transition, with PO pursuing the slow, incremental pursuit of a modernisation paradigm still substantially informed by the precepts of liberal-democratic transition, and PiS advocating a swift, radical break with ‘imitative modernisation’ in favour of a distinctly Polish path of development. While the cautious line trod by the PO-PSL government irritated many of those who had voted for PO in 2007 expecting significant liberal reforms to the economy, the government’s lack of radical zeal seems to have insulated it from the sharp drops in public approval experienced by most of its predecessors. The theme of the election was thus not innovation but continuation: for PO and PSL, the opportunity to carry on with their ‘government of small steps’; for PiS, the opportunity further to pursue their programme of deep reform to the institutions of the Polish state. PSL, desirous above all of a return to coalition government with PO, ran an understated campaign in which they refrained from criticism of their senior partner. Hampered by a lack of clear leadership, the formerly powerful SLD was incapable of asserting itself as anything other than a minor player.

The most dramatic element of the campaign was the rise of the Palikot Movement (Ruch Palikota, RP), a party formed around the flamboyant figure of Janusz Palikot, an entrepreneur and former PO deputy. RP’s mixture of economic liberalism, anti-clericalism and cultural cosmopolitanism stood out against the more staid offerings of PO, PSL and SLD, and at the polar opposite of PiS’s conservative, clerical and nationalist stance. However, only in the last month of campaigning was there any indication that the party stood a chance of passing the 5% electoral threshold. Indeed, RP – in common with other political ‘plankton’ – spent much of the first month of the campaign railing against the supposed ossification of the party system as a result of party cartelisation and ‘capture’ of media organisations. Some commentators – “including the present author”:http://balticworlds.com/poland/ – attributed at least some of RP’s leap at the polls to Palikot’s prominence against the background of a dull campaign, contending that the absence of well-known candidates on party lists would send many voters back to RP’s main competitors, PO and SLD. However, while Palikot’s personal charisma was undoubtedly an important factor in the party’s breakthrough, the party appears to have tapped an ideologically and demographically coherent current among the electorate that is more than a niche, if yet less than a broad base.

Election results

While there is clearly more to a party system than the electoral stability of its component parts, the election results suggest at least partial consolidation of the competitive structure. Both major parties and PSL lost only a small percentage of their votes and seats. Although the emergence of RP and decline of SLD are clearly significant enough to change the complexion of the new parliament, they do not significantly alter the main line of competition. For all the surprise at the irruption of RP onto the political scene, it should be borne in mind that they have 3% fewer votes than the third party in 2007. The dominance of the rivalry between PO and PiS is reinforced when we consider the regional distribution of votes and their translation into seats. Applying 2011 national-level results to 2007 regional patterns of voting (each party’s vote is weighted by its 2007 result in each constituency, with RP’s weights calculated as the opposite of PiS’s), PiS do slightly better, but in general the picture is very similar to the Polish Electoral Commission’s estimate of mandates for 2011. The unweighted results for 2011 are shown, treating Poland as if it were a single constituency of 460 seats. These figures indicate that in 2011 both PO and PiS continued to benefit from their regional strongholds in similar ways to those established in 2007. Although more detailed analysis of constituency-level data is needed here, the results suggest a consolidation of regional strengths which is robust to the emergence of a new party.

Vote and seat shares in Sejm (turnout 48.87%)

Source: “Polish Electoral Commission”:http://wybory2011.pkw.gov.pl/wyn/pl/000000.html#tabs-1

Notes: 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 “first analyses of the distributions of votes”:http://wybory.gazeta.pl/wyboryparlamentarne/1,118281,10440924,Wyborcza_demografia__Ktora_partie_wola_kobiety__a.html indicate the continued relevance of divides between PO’s and PiS’s electorates with respect to two key demographic variables. 75.4% of PO’s electorate lives 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 roughly evenly across cohorts of voters older than 26. Popularity among the youngest age cohort appears to explain much of RP’s success, attracting nearly a quarter of those between 18 and 25. Interestingly, RP also appeals more to men (63.1%) than women (39.1%), although the reasons for this are not yet clear.

The consequences

The possibility of a tighter race led to much pre-election uncertainty about the post-election complexion of the Sejm and the possible coalition configurations. At one point, it seemed likely that both PO and PiS would have to negotiate with two minor parties to form a majority coalition, with none of the possible configurations auguring especially well for cohesion or longevity. The picture is now much simpler. It is highly likely that PO will opt to remain in coalition with PSL, who have already hastened to propose a new coalition arrangement. With both parties having established a reasonably harmonious working relationship over the last four years, an arrangement that preserves the continuity of government is more likely to appeal to the cautious Tusk. For PO, the presence of Palikot in the Sejm is double-edged. The very real enmity between RP and PiS will give PO the opportunity to stand aside from the to-and-fro of emotional polemic in the new parliament. A more dynamic PO may be able to tempt young, ambitious defectors from RP if Palikot’s leadership style becomes too overbearing. The presence of another potential coalition partner for PO will also make PSL more mindful of the consequences of indiscipline. However, aside from the extra quantity of unpredictability Palikot brings to the new parliament, the presence of RP ‘outside the tent’ poses a new challenge for PO. In the previous parliament, disenchanted voices of economic liberalism were noisy but containable, existing either on the margins of PO itself or in media and thinktanks whose mandate to speak for the Polish public could more easily be dismissed. In the new parliament, PO will approach the next wave of economic crisis with its programme squeezed from both sides: while PiS will not hesitate to exploit the social consequences of liberalising reforms, RP will undoubtedly seek to consolidate its position as the voice of economic liberalism by criticising PO for a lack of progress on these issues.

The consequences for the opposition are clearer. PiS has confirmed its major-party status, commanding at least a quarter of the vote. However, its apparent inability to move substantially beyond this figure and its lack of coalitionability do not augur well for its future prospects as a party of power. Despite earlier pronouncements to the contrary, 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. Yet currently the notion that PiS might imitate the 2010 electoral success of Orban’s Fidesz is implausible to say the least. Kaczyński will have to attract coalition partners, but shows no sign that he has the capacity to moderate his policies and rhetoric. While at present his conviction is what drives the party forward, a younger generation of PiS deputies will be tempted to look to new leaders if a third term in opposition should start to look likely. As yet, no challenger has signalled any intention to challenge Kaczyński, but the ambitious PiS MEP and former Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro is young, popular with PiS’s core electorate, and widely touted as the future of the party. However, his coalition potential is, if anything, worse than that of Kaczyński.

The situation is more serious for SLD, the future of which is now in question. Party leader Grzegorz Napieralski has already announced his departure, and Palikot has taken the initiative by announcing talks ‘about the future of the left’ with former president Aleksander Kwaśniewski – the godfather of post-communism – and the popular, experienced SLD deputy Ryszard Kalisz. Palikot’s intention is almost certainly to hive off some of the SLD’s economically centrist and culturally liberal deputies. Having brought into parliament Poland’s first transgender and openly gay deputies, RP can make a credible claim to have unseated SLD as the representative of cosmopolitan and socially progressive values. Unless the SLD can swiftly regroup around a leader with more electoral credibility than Napieralski – and there are few obvious candidates with sufficient backing in the party – then 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.

This election has seen at least a partial consolidation of the pattern of party competition in Polish politics. RP certainly represents a new locus of ideological identification in this structure, but 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. As one Polish daily put it this morning, ‘the time for excuses is over’.