Democratic elections in Poland face a new threat

Democratic elections in Poland face a new threat
Democratic elections in Poland face a new threat

The democratic backsliding in Poland continues under the leadership of the Law and Justice (PiS) government. Over the past two years, PiS has gradually stripped the judicial branch of its independence and tightened its grip over the media.

PiS has now taken aim at Poland’s election process. The Polish Senate supported the election reform bill on Dec. 21 and the lower house of the Polish Parliament, the Sejm, passed it early this morning. Now the bill will go to President Andrzej Duda for his decision.

The electoral law reform proposes a set of seemingly innocuous changes. However, two administrative reforms within the bill concerning the National Election Commission and the National Election Bureau could centralize PiS’s control over elections and further weaken democratic checks and balances in Poland. Here’s the story.

The role of Poland’s National Election Commission

The Polish National Election Commission (Państwowa Komisja Wyborcza, or PKW) oversees the entire electoral process. It is responsible for the registration of parties and candidates, manages the voter rolls, supervises elections and announces final election results. Furthermore, PKW monitors party finances and can withhold state subsidies for parties.

PiS proposes to change how the PKW members are selected. Currently, the PKW consists of nine active or retired judges who are nominated by the nation’s courts. The Constitutional Tribunal, the Supreme Court and the Supreme Administrative Court each get to nominate three members.

The proposed law would give the Sejm power to nominate seven of the PKW members, while the Constitutional Tribunal and the Supreme Administrative Court would nominate just one member each. The Supreme Court — which protested loudly against the politicization of judiciary in 2017 — would lose its representation in the PKW.

Under the proposed changes, the parties with representation in the Sejm would nominate the seven PKW members in proportion to their share of parliamentary seats, but no party would be allowed to nominate more than three members. On the surface, this regulation appears to prevent one party from dominating the PKW.

Here’s the problem: PiS already controls the Constitutional Tribunal, following actions taken in 2015 and 2016. Thus, if PiS remains the strongest party after the 2019 parliamentary election, it would control at least four of nine PKW members. The judiciary laws passed in December 2017 will likely secure the crucial fifth seat in the PKW for the government.

Therefore, the proposed electoral reform combined with the recent judicial reforms could enable one party — at the moment, PiS — to control the constitutional body responsible for overseeing the election process.

And what about the National Election Bureau?

The National Election Bureau (Krajowe Biuro Wyborcze, or KBW) is the institution that provides administrative support for the PKW. Currently, the PKW selects the executive of the KBW. Under the proposed reform, the PKW will lose the freedom to independently choose the executive of the KBW.

Instead, the president, the Sejm and the Senate will nominate one candidate each. The PKW would then select the executive from one of these three. Because PiS controls the presidency and has an absolute majority in both houses of Parliament, the executive of the KBW, in practice, will be nominated by the ruling party.

The KBW coordinates the technical, financial and organizational aspects of the election process. In light of the frequent political conflicts and Poland’s deep political divide, it is essential that the person controlling the KBW is trusted by all parties and considered impartial. The shift to a politicized nomination process could erode confidence in the KBW’s fairness.

What else is at stake with these electoral reforms?

Other proposed reforms, such as limiting mayors to two terms and shifting the length of local, county and regional legislative bodies from four to five years, could permit PiS to strengthen its power in the long run. However, this hinges on popular support for the party in the future. Further, the new definition of a valid vote has raised concerns because it introduces ambiguity into what ballot markings count. The new law also embraces some progressive ideas such as obligatory participatory budgeting in larger cities.

Overall, the bill contains a number of minor changes, some of them innocuous, others less so. Changing the way the National Election Commission members and the executive of the National Election Bureau are selected would appear to continue the reforms aimed at centralizing power and eroding Poland’s checks and balances. These changes, if signed by the president, would seem to represent yet another step in Poland’s deconsolidation of democracy.

Kamil Marcinkiewicz is a lecturer in political science and research methods at the University of Hamburg (Germany). His research focuses on voting behavior, elections and parliaments in Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany.
Mary Stegmaier is an assistant professor in the Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri. Her research focuses on voting behavior, elections, forecasting and political representation in the U.S. and abroad.

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