Greater-Warsaw and Other Maneuvers: Polish Government Plays Tricks with Electoral Bill

The PiS government wants to influence elections in their favor by manipulating district boundaries || iStock/ MagMos

The Polish government is persistent and unwavering. Since its accession to power, the national conservative government, appointed by the PiS party (Law and Justice), is systematically altering the state in order to secure its power on a permanent basis. The opposition is having a hard time. The fact that the electoral law should now be adapted to the party’s needs is not really surprising. In the next year’s local elections, the opposition could be severely disadvantaged.

The public media were quickly hijacked. An education reform that made it possible for the government to occupy almost all rector posts based on the affiliation to the PiS party, was pulled through this summer. In autumn, the government tried to pass a bill that makes it possible to appoint judges on high functions by a simple majority of the government – a project that was vetoed by Poland’s President Duda after protests. No one is surprised that the electoral law has now become a target.

First a Little Gerrymandering…

The government began to consider changing the structure of constituencies this spring. The fact that the opposition governs in the big cities has been a thorn in the eye of the PiS government for a long time. The largest city in which PiS won a majority in the 2015 national election is Nowy Sącz – with its 83,000 inhabitants it is the 44th largest city in Poland. Warsaw, in particular, is a cradle of opposition. The solution to this “problem” relied on a modification of Trump´s motto “Make Warsaw great again!”. Since then, the transformation of Warsaw into Greater-Warsaw is underway.

The city area will soon be larger than the one of London or Paris. As a result of the reform 32 (mostly PiS-loyal) rural communities are to be integrated into the city, which could change the majority situation in favor of PiS. “Gerrymandering” is what Americans call the process of “shaping” election results through constituency reforms. Viktor Orbán has been practicing this approach in Hungary quite unscrupulously for a long time. In Budapest, there are constituencies whose territory does not even consist of a coherent piece. Although this is not yet the case in Poland, the tendency is for the government to once again follow the Hungarian example of building “illiberal democracy”.

Marcin Białek || Creative Commons
Marcin Białek || Creative Commons

… Then Abolishment of the Second Round of Voting

Last week, the next blow came. Just before the deadline for such changes, the government is now proposing a change in the local electoral law, which should already apply to the elections scheduled for next year. Officially, it’s about “simplification” and less bureaucracy. In fact, the core of the project would permanently change the political landscape in Poland: the local elections in Poland are based on the majority electoral law, i.e. the candidates must win in their respective constituencies. However, there is also a second round of voting, in which the two most successful candidates from the first round compete against each other. This ensures that the victorious candidate actually has the majority of electoral votes. This second round of voting is now to be abolished. This means that a relative majority will now suffice for the victory in the constituency that favors the relatively stronger party (for the foreseeable future: PiS) enormously.

It is not without reason that MP Joanna Scheuring-Wielgus of the opposition liberal party Nowoczesna fears: “I simply can´t imagine a situation where three mayoral candidates of a larger city score 21, 20, and 19 percent of the votes and the one with 21 percent wins: as I see it, it’s called electoral fraud.”

A Small Reduction with Big Consequences

And that is not all. Also under the excuse of debureaucratization, PiS also wants to downsize the regional parliaments (called “Sejmiki”). So far, they have had five to fifteen members (depending on the size of the voivodeship), and this number should now be reduced to three to seven members. That would be the end for the majority of small opposition parties in voivodeships. It would also further cement the power of PiS on the “procedural path”. Therefore, in response to this intention, opposition parties are already discussing joint candidacies. It is a “predatory regulation,” said Wladyslaw Kosiniak-Kamysz, Chairman of the opposition Polish People’s Party.

Meanwhile, the Chairman of the National Electoral Commission, Wojciech Hermeliński, has strongly criticized the bill. According to him, not only is the procedure itself unfair, but so is the haste with which it has been pulled through at the last moment. Normally, such changes would not be made for an imminent election. Due to the fact that there is little time available now for implementation, proper execution of the election can no longer be guaranteed. The bill, according to Hermeliński, gives the impression of being written by people “who have no idea what the elections will look like in practice”.

Harsh words! However, it is doubtful that they are going to make the government give in. On the contrary, there are already rumors that the electoral bill for the national parliamentary elections (2019) is next on the list of government projects. That would absolutely come as no surprise.

The article was originally published in German:

Detmar Doering
Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom