Politics

Poland’s Local Elections – Embarrassing Incident or a Threat to Democracy?

The embarrassing number of various irregularities which arose during Poland’s recent local elections has turned EU politicians’ attention towards Poland’s internal politics. According to some, this incident could be a symptom of serious problems with democracy in the country. What made European Parliament’s members comment on the very performance and outcome of Poland’s local elections as “very alarming facts to be considered by everybody”?

Poland Local Elections

Let us look at these facts. During the first runoff of the local elections on November 16th, the newly installed system for vote count failed, leading to serious delays and discrepancies in elections’ results which, in turn, triggered a considerable number of protests. Had the technological failure in the vote count been the only problem, the date would have been remembered by the Poles as an embarrassing incident and a sign of the electoral authorities’ incompetence. Unfortunately, the incident turned into a series of alarming events marked by the release of questionable official results.

Published after the votes had been counted manually due to the failure of the newly-acquired system, the results were greatly delayed, which was already perceived as a mark of incompetence. Moreover, the results differed significantly from the exit polls published earlier by IPSOS, a renowned company which had accurately predicted electoral outcomes before. This time, the difference in data was so significant that a different party from the one predicted won the local elections. Most importantly, certain areas of Poland saw as many as 40% of the votes, or a numerical equivalent of 3 million votes, declared invalid for no obvious reason.

Due to such questionable practices, a popular demand for re-elections emerged across the country. Over 1,500 protests were submitted to regional courts alone. The reaction was welcomed with disdain, manifested through the arresting of journalists at the headquarters of the Polish electoral committee – Panstwowa Komisja Wyborcza [PKW] – a politically-independent and politically-neutral administrative organ which guards every election in the country. Since Polish law does not allow re-elections, the old-fashioned manual vote count was considered as provision for the final results. “It is incredible that in the 21st century, in the middle of Europe, we have to struggle so much with vote count. Irrespective of what the final results are, these elections and the chaos surrounding them show that our country is in the midst of a great crisis. Even when it comes to issues which are crucial for democracy, the country does not function”, argued politician Zbigniew Girzyński in an interview for Wsieci.pl.

Following the publication of the results, virtually everyone on the Polish electoral committee PKW – namely eight out of nine judges – tendered his or her resignation, leaving PKW filled with vacancies (despite the approaching date of the presidential elections in early 2015). The judges resigned under public pressure, the unfairness of which was commented on: “In our view, we did not deserve this mass of criticism, a criticism directed towards the foundations of the Polish democratic system and the Polish electoral system, which is respected internationally; its uniqueness consists in its comprising of judges”, said PKW’s chairman Stefan Jaworski.

Why then did the local elections’ results differ greatly from the exit polls? Moreover, why were three million votes declared invalid? Both facts border on suspicion and various answers were provided by politicians and journalists. Some of them, the Polish President included, argue that the voters handed in invalid forms on purpose, in order to manifest growing dissatisfaction with the political situation, “The frustration and disapproval towards all political parties is constantly on the grow”, comments a journalist Łukasz Lipiński on Polityka.pl. Politicians from the opposition on the other hand, responded with a very serious accusation: the elections’ results are likely to have been falsified. Indeed, people don’t buy the story that so many citizens were unable to correctly fill in the voting form – after all, the number of invalid votes is much greater than ever before. PKW and local electoral officials were thus accused of “correcting” the vote forms so that the “right” politicians and parties win the elections. There is at least one other fact to be flagged up in support of this hypothesis – the highest number of invalid votes occurred in the course of regional parliamentary elections which represent the most politically-significant tier of local elections.

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According to a survey conducted by Newsweek.pl, almost 19% of the Poles believe that local elections were purposefully falsified, whilst over 14% believe that their falsification occurred due to failure of the vote counting system.

Are these accusations of falsified elections a mere sign of “political paranoia” or are they to be perceived as an indicator that Polish democracy is under threat? The chairmen of the most important courts in the country have written a collective appeal in which they state that such accusations “create an ambience of hysteria” and “serve to produce anarchy in the country”. During a public hearing on the matter at the European Parliament which took place on December 11, international politicians and electoral experts deemed the situation “highly alarming” and “bordering on suspicion”. To quote one of many such opinions, a British politician Martin John Callanan commented: “It really concerns me (…) to see that three million votes were declared invalid. This is incredible in Europe in 2014. Of course no electoral system is perfect. (…) If we have problems with 10, 15, or 20 votes in the [British] elections, that’s worrying; three million votes disenfranchised in a major EU-member state is a scale that we’ve never seen before. This requires serious investigation”. He also expressed concern about the arrest of citizens who protested, whose right to express their worries in a free country has been infringed.

Now that the issue is internationalised, let us hope the situation will be thoroughly investigated and explained. Only thus will the two major upcoming elections in 2015 rid themselves of similar concerns, while the democracy in Poland will find itself distanced from political threat.

Olga Lenczewska

University of Oxford

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