How the Integrity of Poland’s Elections Is Undermined
The October 15 elections in Poland will determine whether the foundations of the country’s democracy—including judicial independence and media freedom—will be further weakened or restored. The Law and Justice party (PiS), in power since 2015, and the largest opposition party, Civic Platform, are neck and neck. The latter’s potential coalition partners are also making headway. However, Poland’s elections are structurally unfair due to the attacks by the PiS government on the standards of democracy and its consolidation of control over vital institutions and mechanisms.
The factors that led to the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) ruling that the 2019 general elections and the 2020 presidential election were not fair have intensified since then. Today, PiS benefits from biased electoral laws, propaganda in state and private media, the introduction of a referendum with polarizing questions, the use of state resources for campaigning, and direct state transfers to supportive segments of the population. At the same time, the institution responsible for assessing the validity of elections is not considered independent under European law.
Biased Electoral Rules
The government has implemented changes to the electoral code that benefit the ruling coalition, most recently in March. The core support for PiS is in rural and small-town communities and the number of polling stations in rural areas has been increased. Rural communes and small towns are obliged to provide free transportation for voters to the polling stations.
The allocation of parliamentary seats has not been adjusted to reflect population shifts despite a request from the National Electoral Commission in relation to the Electoral Code. As a result, there is a marked disparity, with voters in densely populated urban districts underrepresented and those in sparsely populated rural areas overrepresented. For example, according to one estimate, a candidate must obtain 98,000 votes to secure a seat in one of Warsaw’s electoral districts but 74,000 votes in one of the districts in the rural east.
This year, following the successful strategy employed by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in the 2022 elections in Hungary, the government has introduced a referendum on the same day as the elections. The four questions are formulated in a biased manner that aligns with government positions on polarizing issues to mobilize PiS voters. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has expressed concern that the secrecy of the ballot will be undermined for those wanting to vote in the elections but not in the referendum as they will have to publicly refuse to take the referendum ballot paper, which indicates that they probably do not support the government.
Media and Resource Advantages
Poland’s state media are legally obliged to be politically impartial and to provide balanced news coverage. However, they and the captured private media heavily promote PiS’s agenda and discredit the opposition. Through the state-controlled oil and gas company PKN Orlen, the government has gained control of Polska Press, which owns 20 out of 24 regional newspapers, 120 regional weeklies, and hundreds of online portals. Meanwhile, media regulators, the National Broadcasting Council, and the National Media Council lack independence from the government. The OSCE/ODIHR has concluded that the National Broadcasting Council does not systematically monitor public or private media for compliance with their electoral obligations.
Electoral campaigns can be financed through electoral committees with contributions from private donations or loans. Donations can be up to 15 times greater than the minimum wage, and well-compensated managers in government-controlled companies have been contributing generously to PiS party campaign fund.
There are no limits to contributing funds to run referendum information campaigns, which offers a way of circumventing campaign finance regulations. Also, not only political parties but foundations, associations, and social organizations have a right to airtime in state media for such campaigns. Foundations associated with state-controlled companies do so in favor of the referendum, which boosts PiS’s message, while the opposition parties and many civil society groups call to boycott it.
The ruling majority vigorously utilizes state resources for campaign purposes. Ahead of the elections, the government decided to allocate state funds for activities promoting its new policies, namely increasing a flagship monthly allowance from 500 to 800 zlotys per child from January 2024, distributing free medicine to children and pensioners, and eliminating motorway tolls. In the runup to the elections, the state power company PGE also launched a lavish public relations campaign promoting its achievements during the PiS years, such as “ensuring Poland’s energy security”.
The government has also made direct cash transfers to citizens as the elections neared. In April, retirees received a “13th month” pension payment, and 8.8 million people received a one-time “14th month payment” in September. PKN Orlen also granted generous Christmas bonuses to all its employees in September.
Not Independent Institutions
In 2018, the government added two new chambers to the Supreme Court, one of which is tasked with ruling over the validity of elections and over electoral complaints, which is constitutionally the role of the court. The Court of Justice of the European Union and the European Court of Human Rights have ruled that, due to the politicized appointment of judges, this chamber is not independent under EU law and the European Convention on Human Rights.
The government has also modified the composition of the National Electoral Commission. Since 2018, the majority of its members no longer consists of judges but also of persons “qualified to be a judge” and selected by the lower chamber of parliament, which limits independent judicial oversight of elections and gives more room to political influences.
The recently established State Commission for Investigating Russian Influence on the Internal Security of the Republic of Poland between 2007 and 2022 has not yet begun its work but it is another worrying development. According to the Council of Europe’s European Commission for Democracy Through Law, it could easily become a tool in the hands of the governing majority to eliminate its political opponents. The European Commission has started legal procedure against Poland in relation to this new body.
Anna Wójcik is a visiting fellow with the Engaging Central Europe program of The German Marshall Fund of the United States.