The majority of the commentariat in Poland has reconciled itself to a victory for Jarosław Kaczyński’s “Law and Justice party in Poland’s parliamentary elections next week. With a nearly 16 point lead in an average of recent polls (since October 1), that triumph seems a foregone conclusion.
But there is winning and there is “winning.” If we fill out the details, here is where things stand:
But let’s be careful: the variability in the survey data is considerable. In fact, in the course of writing this post I have had to update the figures in this chart, because new polls are coming in so quickly. In September, different firms registered PiS at levels from 40% (Kantar on 9/26) to 48% (Estymator on 9/19). Although it might seem reasonable to just average out the results, we aren’t necessarily comparing like with like. Companies use different methodologies in everything from data collection (phones, in-person, computer) to sample sizes and demographic weighting. So caveat emptor.
But for discussion’s sake, let’s run with the average above. Poland’s complex electoral law uses proportional representation within each of the country’s 41 electoral districts, each of which has a different number of delegates based on population size. Although Poland does not suffer from gerrymandering comparable to the United States, there are inevitable (though usually slight) deviations from a pure nation-wide proportional representation system. In a race as close as this one, that could matter.
But wait: what is close about a race with one party so far in the lead? First of all, being in first place isn’t enough to form a government. PiS (technically, the “United Right,” consisting of PiS and some small satellite parties) will have very few options for coalition partners if it fails to get 50% of the seats in parliament. The far right Konfederacja party is a coalition of groups that consider Kaczyński too soft. These include several white-supremacist, misogynist, antisemitic, ultra-nationalist, and authoritarian grouplets which are frustrated that PiS hasn’t pushed its revolution far enough. Nonetheless, they would almost certainly enter a coalition with PiS should the occasion arise.
The wild card is PSL, the Polish Peasant’s Party. This is the oldest political party in Poland, with roots in the 19th century agrarian movement. As Poland has modernized and urbanized, this party was marginalized but never eliminated. Its ideological flexibility has allowed it to enter into coalitions with governments of many ideological orientations, based on purely tactical and clientelistic grounds. In recent years it has struggled mightily to retain a constituency, because PiS has drained away nearly all its rural support with appeals to Catholic conservative identity politics and (since taking power in 2015) with an ever growing patronage system in the countryside. There are countless personal animosities between PSL and PiS activists on both the local and national level, which would make a coalition very difficult. To date, every party that Kaczyński has entered into coalitions with has either been de-facto absorbed, or eliminated. The PSL leadership is well aware of this track record. Still, the common ground between these to parties can’t be ignored: both represent culturally conservative, rural, Catholic constituencies. It is by no means out of the question that they might abandon the democratic opposition (with whom they have generally aligned since 2015) and cast their lot with the far right.
But none of this necessarily matters, because everything depends on the application of the complex mathematics of the so-called d’Hondt method, which is the foundation of the Polish election rules. Click on those links for the details, but to make a long story short, this system eliminates parties that get less than 5% of the vote and then redistributes those votes among the larger parties, with a complex system that rewards the largest parties the most. Most of the time this deviates only marginally from a simple proportional representation system, but twice since the fall of communism in 1989 it has resulted in radically distorted results when an unusual number of small parties came in just under the limit:
This year, it doesn’t look like we will see a repeat of 2015 (not to mention 1993). Only two groups, PSL and Konfederacja, are polling close to the 5% mark. PSL has only fallen below that number in 3 outlier polls since July, and Konfederacja has only passed that mark in a small handful.
With all that buildup, here’s roughly what the current survey results would produce in terms of parliamentary delegates:
With this model, PiS is several delegates short of a majority. To get a sense of how close this is, if Konfederacja gets 5% instead of the 4.4% they currently have, the result could look like this:
To get a sense of how weird this mechanism can be, here is what would happen if we just took the best survey results PiS has had in the past month, the aforementioned September result from Estymator:
And here’s the other extreme: the worst poll Kaczyński has seen recently:
Given this range of possible outcomes, and taking into account all the additional complexities mentioned above, the only thing we can predict for sure is that this is going to be very close.
That leads to two very important conclusions:
- Whatever the result (unless all the polls have been wrong and one side or the other gains a truly decisive majority) we should be extremely cautious in making any generalizations about Polish public opinion. The country is divided roughly down the middle, with each side living in separate media ecosystems and experiencing different daily realities. That’s not going to change.
- If PiS does gain a majority, it will continue to rule as if it has an overwhelming mandate, with confident affirmations that it alone represents the voice of that “true” Polish nation. It will push forward even more radical measures to curtail liberal democracy, to advance authoritarian centralization, and to brutally marginalize those who don’t fit into its vision of Polishness. In a future post I will describe the proposals outlined in the PiS party platform, but suffice it to say for now that they are as ambitious as they are terrifying. In other words, the stakes of these elections are unspeakably massive, and the fate of Poland is almost certain to be decided by a very small number of votes.