What Poland’s electoral law change can tell us about improving European elections

, by Pascal Letendre-Hanns

What Poland's electoral law change can tell us about improving European elections

Among the many constitutional changes that Poland’s governing party, PiS, is pushing through is a change to the electoral system for the European Parliament elections. On the surface, the change seems fairly technical and innocent.

Currently, Poland elects its MEPs through the D’Hondt method, electing its representatives as though the whole state were a single constituency and allocating seats to the different parties in proportion to their percentage of the vote. Officially, the government wants to give better representation to Poland’s different regions by dividing the country up into 13 districts, each with a minimum of 3 MEPs, with the exact number of MEPs in proportion to the population of the district (though not lower than 3).

In practice, however, experts have argued that this will seriously disadvantage smaller parties and create an incredibly high barrier for parties to win seats. Members of the Polish Senate’s legislative bureau estimate that in practice a party could need to win as much as 16.5% of the vote before being assured of winning any actual representation. EU law mandates that the threshold cannot be higher than 5%; the government isn’t actually changing the legal requirement but instead imposing an effectively higher threshold through other changes to electoral law.

This manipulation of electoral thresholds inevitably serves to benefit larger parties, of which PiS is one. Indeed in 2015, Poland’s national electoral threshold law kept out two left-wing parties following the general election and so helped assure PiS held a majority. Poland’s government is therefore all too familiar with how it can benefit from this new system.

It’s unlikely that the EU or anyone outside of Poland will be able to do much about this for now, so what can be learned about the way European elections are conducted?

Under the current system, EU states have to conform to a general set of conditions for European elections but are allowed to deal with the specifics for themselves. For example, EU law sets out that elections to the European Parliament must be conducted through a proportional system but it is up to member states to decide whether that means using STV [1], open-list or closed-list. Countries may also set different electoral thresholds of between 3-5% or no threshold at all. Some states organise their elections as though the whole country were a single constituency, while others split the country up into multiple constituencies.

This flexibility does have some advantages, yet the changes being pushed through in Poland also show the risks that excessive flexibility can pose to European democracy. Increasingly, in Eastern and Central Europe particularly, states are manipulating democratic systems in order to create guaranteed bases of power for the established governing party. The EU has no authority over national-level elections but it does when it comes to European elections. The Council and Parliament should use this power to tighten up the legislation on European elections, ensuring that countries are tied as much to the spirit as to the letter of the law and shutting down loopholes that will disenfranchise large numbers of citizens. After all, what’s the point in setting the threshold maximum at 5% in European law, when the flexibility in the choice and structure of the electoral system means that this can be exceeded in practice?

At the same time, the opportunity should be taken to modernise the law around European elections more generally. The EU has already moved in that direction with new measures such as penalties for double voting and mandatory thresholds for constituencies with more than 35 seats. Rules to encourage citizens to be allowed to vote in third countries will also help encourage participation. More symbolic moves such as the displaying of the names and logos of European political parties on the ballot paper will also help citizens more clearly identify the structure of European politics.

Beyond these existing ideas, a single election day could also be a powerful symbolic change. Currently, the feeling that European elections are disjointed, a series of national elections being run concurrently, is not helped by the staggered nature of voting, with states holding their elections on different days. Having all European citizens elect their representatives on the same day would give more weight to the result and would help bring Europeans together in support of their common political parties.

The European elections are a foundational pillar of European democracy; EU governments and MEPs must ensure that all European citizens receive equal treatment and equal representation. This principle cannot be thrown away in the name of national autonomy. If Europe cannot protect the votes of its citizens, our democracy will be seriously undermined.

This is a slightly adapted version of the text published on Pascal Letendre-Hanns’s Europe Votes 2019 blog. Read the original here: https://europevotes2019.wordpress.com/2018/08/07/what-polands-electoral-law-change-can-tell-us-about-improving-european-elections/


[1Single transferable vote.

Your comments

  • On 15 August 2018 at 10:25, by Ian Beckett Replying to: What Poland’s electoral law change can tell us about improving European elections

    “The European elections are a foundational pillar of European democracy; EU governments and MEPs must ensure that all European citizens receive equal treatment and equal representation" Are you serious? In France each MEP represents 880,000 citizens, in Malta it is only 70,000. In other words a Maltese vote is worth over 12 times that of every French vote. In what way is that equal representation?

  • On 15 August 2018 at 14:58, by Juuso Järviniemi Replying to: What Poland’s electoral law change can tell us about improving European elections

    Ian Beckett’s comment above presents a valid criticism: if you think that the European Parliament should embody the principle of ’one citizen, one vote’, then the Parliament is obviously failing. The current arrangement, of course, is designed to protect smaller member states’ representation - in that sense, by criticising the current arrangement, you declare yourself in favour of more of “Europe of citizens” and less of “Europe of nation-states”.

    However, I’d be happy with the current arrangement. The idea behind proportional representation is to get many different parties’ voices heard in the parliament. If you want to ensure that even countries(/constituencies?) like Malta can theoretically elect people from multiple parties, and you don’t want to turn the European Parliament into a mammoth of thousands of MEPs, the current system is the best.

  • On 16 August 2018 at 10:40, by Ian Beckett Replying to: What Poland’s electoral law change can tell us about improving European elections

    Juuso Järviniemi, thank you for clarifying for me that the EP does not embody the principle of ‘one citizen one vote’, although I am now struggling to understand how the EU can portray itself as a democratic organisation if that is not the underlying foundation of its representative system. (I am reminded of George Orwell’s dictum “All citizens are equal but some are more equal than others”.) You seem to be more interested in the ability of small parties to be returned rather than the best possible representation of majority of elector’s wishes. So the regressive proportionality system used for the EP allows relatively tiny numbers of voters in smaller countries to theoretically elect a range of parties at the cost of much poorer levels of representation for very large numbers of people in other countries. To examine the specific case of Malta, in 2014, 93% of Maltese votes went to the two main parties each of which was given 3 seats, indeed they are the only parties that have ever returned MEPs. The minor parties missed being elected by a very considerable margin and realistically it is extremely unlikely they ever would be. The system is as it is, but let’s not pretend that the actions of the Polish government is any more inherently undemocratic than the actions of the EU.

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