Poland’s referendum and election: The big issues no one’s talking about

By Daniel Tilles and Stanley Bill

Over the next two months, Poland will have one (and possibly two) national referendums and is likely to see a change of government. So why have some of the biggest issues involved – Poland’s electoral system, its constitution and the role of religion in public life – been subject to so little public debate?

1353688714-referendum-takThe Poland that emerges at the end of 2015 is likely to be a very different country from the one that entered it. Already, the incumbent president, Bronisław Komorowski, who started the year with a 40-point lead over his rivals, has been dramatically voted out of office, replaced by his conservative opponent, Andrzej Duda. Now, the new president’s former party, the opposition Law and Justice (PiS), appears to be heading for a landslide victory in October’s parliamentary elections. In the meantime, one (and possibly two) national referendums will ask the Polish public to give their opinion on a range of important, from the funding of political parties to the retirement age.

Yet, despite these potentially momentous changes, there has been surprisingly little discussion among politicians, the media, and certainly the general public about many of the key issues involved.

Referendum season

In our previous post, Notes from Poland discussed the tit-for-tat referendum proposals occasioned by the presidential elections in May, Duda’s unexpected victory, and the present parliamentary election campaign. While President Duda’s proposed October 25 referendum still awaits confirmation by the Senate, the referendum proposed by his predecessor will take place this weekend. On September 6, Poles will go to the polls to answer three questions:

  1. Do you support the introduction of single-member voting districts in parliamentary elections of the Republic of Poland?
  2. Do you support the continuation of the current method of financing political parties from the state budget?
  3. Do you support the introduction of a general principle that doubts in the interpretation of the articles of the tax code should be decided in favour of the tax payer?

For the people’s verdicts to be binding, voter turnout must reach more than 50% – which is by no means guaranteed. Unsurprisingly, an overwhelming majority of surveyed Poles support the proposed change to the tax code. A significant majority wants to change the current system for financing political parties, though the vague nature of the question will not necessitate any specific action from the government. A much smaller majority supports the introduction of single-member voting districts.

Changes to the voting system and the financing of political parties would clearly have significant consequences for Polish democracy. But, bizarrely, in both cases the likely outcome seems to run counter to what the public claims to want.

Single-member voting districts would (as they do in places like the UK and US) almost certainly limit the electoral prospects of smaller parties and move Poland further in the direction of a two-party system. Given that this would likely entrench the position of the two current main parties – PiS and Civic Platform (PO), who together took 74% of votes at the last parliamentary election – it appears to be precisely the opposite of the effect desired by anti-establishment activists who have most loudly advocated single-member districts (led by rock-star-turned-anti-politician Paweł Kukiz).

Meanwhile, dismantling the state-sponsored system of party finance would potentially open Polish politics to the dangers of much stronger influence from wealthy lobby groups and individuals. This, again, surely runs counter to the demands of Poles who claim to be sick of the supposedly corrupt ruling elites.

So why are Poles seemingly set to vote against their own interests? One reason may well be that the issues involved in the referendum have received so little public debate. When Britain held a referendum in 2011 over a relatively minor tweak to the electoral system (ironically, due to disillusionment with traditional single-member voting districts), the issue briefly dominated public and political discourse. By contrast, far more significant potential changes in Poland have received far less attention. Walking around the streets of Krakow, talking to its inhabitants, watching the news and reading the national press, discussion of the issue is notable by its absence. Indeed, many Poles seem to be confused about the referendum and about the electoral system in general. Thus it appears that their anti-establishment anger is being misdirected down a path that may in fact more deeply entrench the current establishment, which will surely further exacerbate that anger in future.

A new constitution?

In additional to the potential changes instituted via referendum, Poland’s political system may face a much more fundamental renovation if PiS comes to power. Assuming they are able to form a government after October’s elections, they will, with a sympathetic president also in office, be in a position to enact many of the policies they have been brewing up during eight long years in opposition.

One regularly expressed aim has been to replace Poland’s current constitution with a new one. This is in issue that is over 25 years in the making. Many leading figures on Poland’s conservative right have never been happy with the political and constitutional arrangements that emerged from the Round Table Agreement that helped re-establish democracy. They argue that the agreement was far too favourable for (indeed was orchestrated by) Poland’s former communist elites, with insinuations that these ‘post-communists’ have profited economically since 1989, while also continuing to pull the political strings behind the scenes.

As such, PiS has often talked about replacing Poland’s current Third Republic with a Fourth Republic, one that will better represent and defend the national interest. The idea became a centrepiece of their successful 2005 election campaign, although their subsequent two chaotic years in government saw little lasting progress toward their goal. Subsequently, in opposition, the party’s leadership has periodically revived the issue. In 2010, party leader Jarosław Kaczyński presented a draft constitution, arguing that the existing document was invalid as it was instituted by a parliament dominated by ‘post-communist groupings’.

In the last couple of years, however, the issue has taken something of a back seat, perhaps as a consequence of Kaczyński’s attempt to soften the image of the party, making it appear less radical (and therefore more electable) than it has in the past. But this year, the constitutional question has been revived – not by Kaczyński, who remains rather reticent, but by his hand-picked candidate for the presidency, Andrzej Duda. Both during campaigning and since his victory, Duda has openly expressed his desire to get rid of the current constitution. He has, however, been rather light on specific details of what he wants to replace it with, other than vague talk of the need to ‘strengthen…our sovereignty’, given that since 1997 Poland has joined both NATO and the EU.

Perhaps as a consequence of this ambiguity, there has been little discussion of the issue in political campaigning or media discourse. Thus, it was interesting to see last weekend a critique of PiS’s plans appear in Gazeta Wyborcza, written by Wojciech Sadurski, professor of law at the Universities of Sydney and Warsaw. (It should be noted that both Sadurski and Gazeta Wyborcza do not hide their hostility to PiS). Given Duda’s reluctance to provide clear details of his desired new constitution, Sadurski makes the assumption that PiS’s most recently proposed draft (published at a time when Duda was a senior adviser on legal affairs to President Lech Kaczyński) remains valid.

Freedom from religion

Sadurski expresses particular concern at the religious nature of the document, whose preamble begins ‘In the name of God Almighty!’ and goes on to express gratitude ‘to Divine Providence for the gift of independence’ and stress that the history of the Polish nation is ‘associated with Christianity’. Sadurski contrasts this to the current constitution, which in its preamble specifically defines the nation as ‘all citizens of the Republic…both those who believe in God…as well as those not sharing such faith’. He fears that PiS’s version seeks to exclude atheists, Jews, Muslims and even Orthodox Christians. (In PiS’s defence, their draft constitution does state that ‘every individual enjoys freedom of conscience, belief, worship and religious practice, and of religious education in private and public life’.)

Sadurski also claims that PiS’s constitution abandons much of the language that enshrines ‘freedom from religion’: for example, the rights not to participate in religious practices and not to disclose one’s religious beliefs. It also introduces a constitutional obligation for state schools to teach religion, as well as a civic right for ‘cultural and religious’ symbols to be publicly displayed. Every life is to be respected ‘from conception’ (indicating a move in the direction of an absolute ban on abortion) and the public authorities will ‘not regulate non-marital relationships’ (precluding the possibility of civil partnerships). PiS has also removed the current constitution’s stipulation that a child’s ‘upbringing should respect…his freedom of conscience and belief and also his convictions’.

Taken together, these measures, Sadurski concludes, would end the official (albeit in practice often rather blurred) separation of church and state, and ensure that religion plays an even more prominent role in state affairs and the public sphere. He also points to PiS’s constitution removing any references to equality between men and women, and its vaguely worded suggestion that ‘restrictions on the exercise of freedoms and rights’ could be introduced to ensure ‘the common good, especially for the protection of public health and morality’. Sadurski fears that, should PiS win October’s election, ‘the fundamental norms of democratic states will disappear from the constitution’.

But how accurate is the pessimistic interpretation of PiS’s intentions? Undoubtedly, the liberal Gazeta Wyborcza tends to support the government’s primary tactic against PiS – namely, the dissemination of fear-mongering caricatures of the party’s alleged extremism. Kaczyński’s selection of the moderate and youthful Duda as the party’s presidential candidate and Beata Szydło as future candidate for prime minister was already supposed to form a pragmatic response to this negative strategy. However, there are very good reasons to assume that the old project of the ‘Fourth Republic’ is alive and well behind the bright modern face of a reformed party, just as Kaczyński remains the real power behind Duda and Szydło.

So far, President Duda has ostensibly pointed to the need for public discussion of the constitution, but all his own specific suggestions have echoed the provisions of PiS’s draft constitution as launched by Kaczyński in 2010 – including the reinforcing of national sovereignty over the institutions of the EU and the strengthening of the president’s role. At the same time, Duda’s ostentatious religiosity, Kaczyński’s declaration that ‘there is no Poland without the Church’, and the almost open support for PiS from important sections of the Church hierarchy, all strongly suggest that the party intends to strengthen the role of religion in public life. A change to the constitution could potentially embed this role in the political structures of a new Polish Republic, while ensuring the still powerful Church’s continued support for PiS.

In comparison with the rest of Europe, Poland remains a strongly religious country. Nevertheless, many Poles are deeply suspicious of any mixing of religion and politics. Partly for this reason, PiS and President Duda have been cautious and vague in their suggestions of a new constitution. At the same time, the party’s strategists are intensely aware that for many potential swing voters the whole idea of the ‘Fourth Republic’ carries bad memories of their unpopular and short-lived term in government from 2005 to 2007. ‘Softly, softly’ is the order of the day for Kaczyński and his party, anxious not to make any catastrophic sudden moves to frighten off the electorate before October 25. As a consequence, the issue has been almost entirely absent from political and media discourse. Sadurski’s analysis, while perhaps extreme, may trigger some much-needed debate.

It is clear that, after an unprecedented eight years of rule by a single government, Poles, many of whom feel they have failed to benefit from the country’s economic development during that period, are desperate for change. Yet the relatively superficial level of public discussion of certain crucial issues means that many appear unsure precisely what they want instead – and may be surprised by what 2016 brings.

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