How proportional representation worked in the Polish election

Author:
Ian Simpson, Research Officer

Posted on the 26th October 2023

With a population of around 40 million, Poland is the European Union’s fifth largest member and by far the largest of its eastern states. It is therefore worth taking notice of any national election in Poland. However, this week’s Polish parliamentary elections were particularly notable, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, some very welcome news for representative democracy, the turnout of 74%, the highest in a Polish parliamentary election since the fall of communist rule in the country. This was much higher than the 62% recorded at the previous parliamentary elections in 2019 and higher than the turnout of any UK general election since 1992. Of particular note was the high turnout among young people, which is an encouraging development when youth turnout tends to be lower than average across many democracies.

Although Poland has a directly elected President, who plays an important role in the political system, the government is headed by a Prime Minister. This is a politician from a party or coalition of parties commanding a majority in the Polish lower house of parliament, the Sejm, which consists of 460 deputies. The Sejm is more powerful than the upper house, the Senate, which consists of 100 Senators.

The result of this week’s Sejm election heralds a potentially big turning point for Poland and indeed Europe. For the past eight years, the Polish government has been led by Prime Ministers from the populist-right, ultra-conservative and somewhat EU-sceptic, Law & Justice party (PiS). At the parliamentary elections of 2015 and 2019, the United Right alliance, consisting of PiS and a handful of much smaller parties, won just over half (51%) of the 460 Sejm seats, giving them an overall majority on both occasions.

In this week’s election, however, PiS, although still the largest single party, lost their majority of seats in the Sejm. Although the PiS-affiliated President, Andrzej Duda, may grant PiS the first opportunity to try to form a government this seems destined to end in failure, as even if the deputies of the far-right Confederation alliance are added to United Right’s deputies, they would still be short of a majority.

The most likely outcome of the election will be a coalition government, formed of three electoral alliances: the centrist Civic Coalition, headed by former Prime Minister Donald Tusk; the centre-right Third Way; and The Left, a centre-left alliance. As the leader of the largest of these groups, Civic Coalition, Tusk is likely to again become Prime Minister.

As in most European countries, a form of proportional representation, in this case a Party List system, is used for elections to the Sejm. Each of the electoral alliances put up a list of candidates in each of the 41 constituencies, with multiple members being elected in each, based on the performance of the parties in that seat.

For example, in the constituency of Warsaw I, twenty candidates were elected. Civic Coalition received 43% of votes and won 9 seats; PiS received 20% of votes and won 4 seats; The Left and Third Way won 13% of votes and 3 seats each and Confederation won 6% of votes and 1 seat.

Across the country, the PiS-dominated United Right received 35.4% of votes and 194 seats (42.2% of seats). Civic Coalition received 30.7% of votes and 157 seats (34.1%). Third Way received 14.4% of votes and 65 seats (14.1%). The Left received 8.6% of votes and 26 seats (5.7%). Confederation received 7.2% of votes and 18 seats (3.9%).

This means that despite the United Right being the single largest faction, they did not win an undeserved majority on just over a third of votes, something that can easily occur in First Past The Post (FPTP) systems. For example, at the 2005 UK general election, Labour won a comfortable overall majority of 66, with just 35% of votes and a lead of just three percentage points over the Conservatives.

In Poland, a clear majority of voters supported one of the three alliances who had clearly stated that they wanted an end to PiS rule. The proportional voting system meant voters had the freedom to choose which one of these anti-PiS alliances they voted for, safe in the knowledge their vote would be properly translated into representation in the Sejm. The outcome was a majority of seats for those anti-PiS parties and in due course the next Polish government is highly likely to be formed from representatives of those parties. This is how a democratic election should work.

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