October elections in Poland


On 15 October Poles will go to the parliamentary elections. As the stakes of this vote are particularly high, political parties, both opposition and those in power, employ various strategies to maximise their chance for success. Whereas there is a very clear dividing line in programmatic terms, there are some similarities when it comes to electoral strategies resulting from the electoral rules. Pre-election polls indicate the ruling party is in the lead, yet the results are still uncertain and the government formation will depend on the willingness of the parties to enter a coalition.

October elections in Poland

High stakes of the October elections

Poland is entering a final stage of preparations for the parliamentary elections in October 2023. The stakes at this elections are particularly high. On one hand, the current opposition’s victory might stop the gradual backsliding of the Polish democracy into illiberalism. On the other hand, some observers argue that the third victory of the right-wing PiS (Law and Justice)-led bloc will finalise consolidation of the illiberal rule.

From a perspective of an external observer, the legacy of the PiS’ two terms in government is rather clear – it went to power with a conservative agenda and has followed it during last 8 years. It has focused on social transfers (some of them undoubtedly necessary), strengthening traditional gender roles or regaining ‘national pride’. Political scene has been shaken by numerous scandals and human rights violations, including a brutal anti-refugee propaganda combined with anti-LGBTQIA+ campaigns and very restricted abortion law. In areas such as environment their record is equally disappointing from a green perspective – logging has been extensive, the expansion of green energy faces several (new) obstacles and scaling down of fossil fuels is very slow. Finally, on the international level, there has been a conflict with the European Commission over the rule of law, resulting in withholding money from the Recovery and Resilience Facility.

Strategic choices – the electoral system does matter!

Given a grim perspective of PiS remaining in power, opposition parties have faced several strategic choices. One of them concerns whether opposition parties should form one bloc (electoral coalition) or run more independently in case of the lower chamber of parliament, Sejm. Among arguments for a single bloc, a simplicity of choice was raised. On the other hand, the programmatic differences between parties ranging across virtually all political spectrum that are impossible to overcome and incomprehensible to voters, were raised. Also, the pressure from a bigger player was noted and there was fear that Civic Coalition could veto some candidates from other lists.

Such considerations regarding electoral strategies are to some extent grounded in the complex electoral rules, including the electoral thresholds (5% for single party committees and 8% for coalition committees) and the seats allocation principle. Accordingly, only committees that pass the thresholds participate in seat allocation. Such allocation is based on the proportional principle (more than one seat per electoral district).

The seat allocation is based on the D’Hondt principle which in a nutshell ranks candidates not according to raw votes cast but according to quotients. Thus, the number of votes cast for each committee in a given voting district is divided by the increasing natural number (eg. 1,2,3) with the number of quotients equal to that of seats in the district (for example – 5 seats in the district, 5 quotients). The seats are divided between the committees who have the highest quotients (5 in total in our example). In the final step, for each committee participating in the seat distribution, the seats are allocated to candidates who received the highest number of votes. Such mechanism has three practical consequences. First, it might be possible that candidates with a bigger number of votes than their competitors will not get a seat as quotients of their committee are comparatively lower. Second, the total number of votes cast for each committee in a district is crucial given the logic of calculating quotients which serve to allocate seats. Third, while the place on the list does not matter, but voters tend to indicate first candidates on the lists, it is usually party leaders who get these places, also to increase the overall number of votes.  

In general the seat allocation method tends to disproportionally ‘overallocate’ seats to the party with the biggest support. This happens when two conditions are met simultaneously: there are many parties which enter Sejm and there are many votes cast for parties which do not enter the chamber (do not pass the threshold). This situation happened in the 2015 elections when 5 parties entered Sejm, and with 16.6% of votes cast for parties which did not enter it. As a result, PiS, which received 37.6% of votes, received enough seats to create a parliamentary majority.

Coalitions and agreements

Voters across Poland will have a chance to choose between mainstream opposition blocs which are running for the lower chamber of the Parliament - Sejm – left (New Left consisting of both more radical and moderate parties), centre-right (Civic Coalition where Polish Greens are running with the main party Civic Platform) and agrarian-right (Third Way, consisting of the old agrarian party and a new Christian democratic party). A fourth opposition contender is a surprisingly popular far-right party (Confederation) and a fifth – Non-partisan local governors. These Poland-wide committees will be complemented by independent local initiatives.

Apart from the New Left, these electoral coalitions are significantly cutting across political ideologies. For example the centre-right bloc have been inviting unusual candidates – Civic Coalition offered a place to a former minister of education with a strong far-right record or to an anti-systemic farmer activist on their ballot, whereas Third Way to the current far right MP. All this in the name of increasing chances of victory with PiS (and weakening Confederation).

Secondly, in case of the upper chamber, Senat, for which seats are allocated following the majoritarian principle (one seat per electoral district) the three ‘democratic’ blocs entered the Senate pact. The pact is an agreement that for each electoral district only one opposition candidate will be proposed so that their chances are maximised against PiS contenders.

Finally, another instance of aligning electoral strategies with the pecularites of the electoral system is the move of the PiS leader, Jarosław Kaczyński from Warsaw, where he would have to face Donald Tusk, the leader of the Civic Coalition, to other electoral district. Whereas Kaczyński’s defeat (in terms of votes) in Warsaw would be symbolic as he would get a seat anyway, the party wants to avoid this, but also attract more right wing voters in a district where more seats can be won.

Combining parliamentary elections and referendum raises concerns

One of the issues surrounding the October elections concerns a referendum planned by the government on the same day. The referendum raises two sets of issues. First, it is the questions to be asked in the referendum – for example one related to relocation of asylum seekers from other Member States to Poland or regarding dismantling the wall on the border with Belarus. Such questions aim to refocus voters’ attention from domestic issues to anti-EU and anti-migrant resentments. A second aspect of the referendum is perhaps more fundamental as the voter’s decision to not take part in this vote will be noted in the signature list. Importantly, this is the only way to refuse the referendum and at the same time, take part in the parliamentary elections – voters are expected to receive voting sheets for both votes at the same time. Even a ‘no’ or an empty vote in the referendum increases turnover and assuming that highly motivated PiS-leaning voters will vote for ‘yes’, increases a chance of making the referendum binding.

Another subject of concerns is voting from abroad – Poles who are abroad and register in a voting commission in the country of their stay can do so as if they were voting in Warsaw. The new changes to the Electoral Code, introduced by PiS, increase the risk that votes from some commissions might not be included in the count. It has to do with the requirement that all votes in every commission abroad must be counted within 24 hours after closing polling stations. Also, each vote needs to be checked by every present member of the commission. All this, given the fact that in some stations the number of voters per station is considerably higher abroad than in Poland and that there is an additional referendum vote,  increases a chance that votes from ‘big’ stations will be excluded. Whereas there are country differences, in general Poles abroad tend to be opposition-oriented.

What’s ahead?

As of mid-September, PiS is leading in the polls, followed by the Civic Coalition. Who will get a third place remains unclear – it can be the New Left or Third Way. Also, what adds to the anxiety of especially Third Way and the Left is the existence of the minimum entry threshold.

One could imagine what will happen after PiS gets re-elected to the government – it will be a continuation of the well-known approach to policy and politics. However, most likely, this time PiS will not get a majority of seats in Sejm. This is why Confederation will be pivotal – as of now they position themselves against the government parties, yet their hunger for power (and shared views on some policy issues) can  justify entering a coalition with PiS.

If the opposition parties form a coalition government (the Civic Coalition will not be able to govern alone), a big question concerns ideological orientation of such coalition. The Civic Platform has received considerable criticism from progressive-left on issues such as abortion, workers’ rights or taxation and it is of fundamental importance if it stands up to its promises to engage in some of these topics. The postulates of the New Left might be hard to swallow by the Coalition and vice versa. Third Way, on the other hand, poses as an independent entity. Finally, whereas several opposition parties target Confederation in their campaigns, it is still possible that this party will enter coalition with them.

Apart from all the considerations jus mentioned, any opposition government will find it hard to pursue its mission due to several legacies and constraints. First, President Andrzej Duda, originating from PiS, will finish his term in August 2025 and most likely he will remain loyal to the party, vetoing bills of the government formed by the current opposition. Secondly, a significant share of the Constitutional Tribunal has been nominated by the PiS majority and their role in law-making will remain important. Finally, given the scale of neglect in some areas such as decarbonisation of the economy, one could not expect fast changes there. Also, if Poles vote in favour of the questions posed in the referendum, its results might limit options of next governments.

Apart from who wins the elections in October, it seems there is an urgent need to propose Polish voters a credible programmatic alternative to the policies and discourses of the ruling party. In this sense, being anti-PiS does not seem sufficient. It will be the results of the elections to prove the impact of the electoral strategies and programmatic offers.