Electoral Systems: the Legislative System in Poland – Sejm as Usual?

A European Politics student guest blog (and a punny title) on Poland’s Sejm elections.

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            At a glance, Poland’s multiparty proportional representation system may seem like any other run-of-the-mill European electoral system. Poland’s system has some nuances that make it stand out from a textbook case like the Netherlands, if only marginally. For one, the 100-member upper house of the National Assembly, the Senate, uses a plurality voting system. It is the lower house, or Sejm (pronounced like “same”), that uses proportional representation to elect its 460 deputies.

There are 41 constituencies in Poland, each allotted between 7 and 19 seats. It is notable that these constituencies do not correspond with the 16 Polish provinces. The electoral district diagram below helps to illustrate the way in which deputies to the Sejm are elected. Each constituency provides a candidate list and members of that district vote on the candidates they want to elect. These votes are then counted in the national aggregate to determine the proportion each party will receive. The parties of each constituency then elect the candidate(s) who received the most votes in their district, per their allotment. The election of a new National Assembly corresponds with presidential elections, every four years.

Distribution of Seats in Polish Electoral Districts (from http://psephos.adam-carr.net/countries/p/poland/polandmapsindex2011.shtml)

In great contrast to Turkey’s limiting electoral system, Poland has a very open electoral system whereby smaller parties are encouraged to form a coalition in order to join the government based on the weighted threshold. Individual parties must receive 5 percent of the vote to be (half of Turkey’s threshold), or in coalition parties need only 8 percent. In addition, this threshold is calculated nationally, not by district. Finally, candidates representing an ethnic minority are exempt from this threshold, meaning that the Sejm has a deputy from the German Ethnic Minority Party even though it only received .2 percent of the vote—essentially a guarantee of minority representation. This attention to ensuring minority voices can be heard is impressive, particularly because Poland has a population that it 96.7 percent ethnically homogenous (according to the 2002 census). Also, party lists must include at least 35 percent of candidates of each sex. Poland exhibits an open system that ensures that minority voices are included.

The Sejm is considered the more powerful chamber of the National Assembly, with the exception of legislation regarding constitutional amendments and international treaties.

For a broader understanding of the legislative process in Poland and the role of the Sejm, see the diagram below provided on the official Sejm website.

Diagram of the Legislative Process in Poland (from http://www.sejm.gov.pl/english/prace/diagram.htm)

The Sejm has power over the constitution of the Council of Ministers (comparable to the Cabinet in the US), but the Polish President, who is directly elected, has the ability to shorten the 4-year term of the Sejm, requiring new elections for the entire National Assembly. This contributes to a system in which the President has more power than is typical in parliamentary systems. Poland also stands out in that despite its multiparty PR system, two parties currently control about 70 percent of the Sejm seats. This disproportionality has decreased slightly since the 2007 elections, however. Poland’s system is not unimpressive for a country recently chained to a repressive Communist regime. Then again, the Sejm has deep historical roots, having been in existence in some form since the 12th Century.

References

“Electoral Law.” Sejm of the Republic of Poland. 1 March 2012.  <http://www.sejm.gov.pl/english/sejm/pos.htm>.

“Legislative Elections 2011.” Parties and Elections in Europe. 1 March 2012.   <http://www.parties-and-elections.de/poland.html>.

“Poland.” CIA World Factbook. 1 March 2012.  <https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/pl.html>.

“Poland Sejm–Electoral System.” Interparliamentary Union PARLINE Database. 1 March 2012. <http://www.ipu.org/parline-e/reports/2255_B.htm>.

“Sejm in the System of Power.” Sejm of the Republic of Poland. 1 March 2012.  <http://www.sejm.gov.pl/english/sejm/sejm.htm>.

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