POLAND’S new government have finally taken power following a hotly contested election and a referendum held by the then governing party, the Law and Justice party (PiS), in mid-October. Poland saw the highest turnout in an election since the end of the Cold War (73 per cent, up from 62 per cent in 2019). A campaign to get younger people to vote resulted in a higher turnout for the under-40s than the over-60s, a reversal of normal voting patterns. (Poland is politically divided along historical and geographical lines set prior to World War I. Support for PiS is strongest in what was the Russian sector; support for the other parties is strongest in what was Prussia and the capital Warsaw. PiS also tended to appeal more to older voters).
The so-called right wing PiS won the most votes overall in this year’s election but it failed to gain enough seats to form a government and was unable to find partners to form a coalition. Donald Tusk’s Civic Coalition was able to do so, having made the agreement in advance of the election. Helped by the Third Way, itself a grouping of the Poland 2050 party and the Polish People’s Party (PSL), Poland has been brought back into the (pro) EU fold and Tusk, prime minister from 2007-2014 and president of the European Council for five years, back into power.
Though united in its aversion to PiS this coalition still has big differences on issues such as abortion, LGBTQ+ rights and energy policy. Its pledge focuses on the ‘unprecedented threat caused by the Russian aggression against Ukraine’, promises to work to restore rule of law, address the climate crisis, and improve Poland’s track record on women’s rights and on ‘combating hate speech’, leaving stickier issues such as liberalising abortion laws out of the mix.
All this, the much-celebrated defeat of PiS, the transfer of power to a new EU-friendly coalition government and the return of Donald Tusk has been widely reported. But the PiS’s referendum result on the four key issues of immigration, borders, state assets and the retirement age has received scant attention. Yet this was a referendum that received the near unanimous support of those who voted which was made more, not less, evident by the coalition parties’ instruction to their supporters to abstain from voting in it.
The referendum questions were criticised for being charged, emotive and divisive. This is their exact wording and the response to each.
Q1 ‘Do you support the sale of state assets to foreign entities, leading to the loss of control by Polish women and men over strategic sectors of the economy?’ 96 per cent No.
Q2: ‘Do you support raising the retirement age, including restoring the retirement age to 67 for women and men?’ 95 per cent No.
Q3: ‘Do you support the admission of thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa, in accordance with the forced relocation mechanism imposed by the European bureaucracy?’ 97 per cent No.
Q4: ‘Do you support the dismantling of the barrier on the border between the Republic of Poland and the Republic of Belarus?’ 96 per cent No.
Couched this way, the referendum looked more like an appeal for a decisive mandate for tougher policies than neutral Yes or No questions. If this was planned by the PiS to shore up their vote, it backfired. The Coalition partners were a step ahead with their instruction to abstain. All four questions gained at least 95 per cent ‘support’ of those who voted, but many didn’t vote at all. Only 40 per cent of the electorate took part (against the 73 per cent electoral turnout). The referendum was deemed invalid for not reaching the 50 per cent participation requirement for the results to be binding.
Despite this, the results are still stark and reflect underlying tensions. As in the UK, Polish birth rates are below death rates and the idea that immigration is the solution to this population ‘time-bomb’ is deeply controversial. Similarly under dispute is the suggestion that an increase in retirement age may be a way to solve this problem. Poles, like many north Europeans, are also deeply worried about African/Middle East immigration. They have particular concerns about the Belarus border question too. As an appeal to nationalism, for those who voted it clearly resonated.
Some basic maths suggests that a majority of people (or at least of those who took part in the election) would still have opposed the propositions put forward in the referendum – ie the balance would still have tipped in favour of the No answer, even if down to a significantly lower percentage. The point is that though the ‘abstain’ tactic won the day, the vote showed the high levels of opposition to all four motions.
So, what do we conclude from this exercise? Did democracy win the day?
The referendum results demonstrate the disjunction between ‘direct’ democracy and party-political democracy; the way Poland remains deeply divided along lines set prior to the First World War; that support for PiS is strongest in what was the Russian sector; that support for the other parties is strongest in what was Prussia and the capital Warsaw; and finally that PiS appeals more to older voters, the Tusk coalition to the younger ones.
Was the referendum let down by the poorly worded questions? Their phrasing suggests an incumbent ruling party asking people to ‘come out’ and take stand on these issues; even a psychological tactic to encourage ‘opposition’ to the EU and its overarching policies. Would better questions and a less combative discussion of these issues have resulted in slightly different results? Would the Coalition parties still have ostracised it? The PiS were stymied. Yet does Tusk’s triumphant coalition, now faced by a possible majority of dissenting voters, represent a victory for democracy? Or a victory for denial and division?