Polish EP electoral code change potential flashpoint between Brussels and Warsaw

The future centre political group are expected to play the role of adjudicators at the European Parliament after the next elections. [EPA-EFE/PATRICK SEEGER]

The Polish Senate has approved an amendment to Polish electoral law for the European elections in 2019 – an issue that could become another flashpoint in the rule of law dispute between Warsaw and Brussels. EURACTIV Poland reports.

In the opinion of experts, the new law will block smaller parties from obtaining seats in the European Parliament, and could also be incompatible with EU law.

The Polish Senate voted on the bill last week, with 60 senators in favour and 27 against. The adoption of the amendment without changes was recommended by the Senate’s human rights, rule of law and petitions, local self-government and state and legislative administration committees last Monday.

In the week preceding the vote, the amendment to the electoral code was adopted by the Polish Sejm. Now the bill is waiting for the signature of Polish President Andrzej Duda.

The new regulations assume that in each electoral district a certain number of MEPs will be elected – at least three – there is currently no specific number of MEPs elected in a given district. According to senators of the ruling party, the changes will increase the representation of these districts in the European Parliament, from which only two representatives of it have so far been sent there.

Until now voting in the elections to the EP has been held according to the proportional system, in which votes cast on individual party lists are converted into MEP mandates using the d’Hondt method on a national scale. Only after determining the number of seats assigned to individual committees are distributed between individual lists of candidates, and the seats are obtained by candidates who received the largest number of votes on a given list.

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The amendment to the Electoral Code states that the number of MEPs elected in individual districts should be pre-determined and that at least three MEPs are elected from each electoral district.

The number of MEPs elected in individual districts is to be determined according to a uniform representation standard, calculated by dividing the number of inhabitants of the country by the total number of MEPs elected in the country, and then – for each district separately – the number of inhabitants in a given district divided by the quotient obtained being a uniform standard of representation.

Senate speaker: A more democratic solution

“I am deeply convinced that (this law) is fairer to the inhabitants of the regions concerned, there are no such things as wandering seats, there are at least three seats per district. I believe that this solution is more pro-citizen,” said Stanisław Karczewski, the Senate Marshall.

“PiS will either gain or lose,” he argued, citing “calculations that show that PiS will lose”. In response to the allegation that the new ordinance acts in favour of the ruling party, Karczewski assured that “this amendment has not been made for the PiS, but for a better representation from individual constituencies”.

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“It cannot be that no one knows how many candidates come from one districts, while there are none from another,” he argued.

In Karczewski’s opinion, the change in the ordination to the EP also allows for “more democratic, in the sense of individual electoral districts, voting for candidates”. The speaker of the Senate also stated that he disagrees with the critical opinion of the legislative bureau on new provisions and had also ordered other expert opinions.

New code might break EU law

The Polish Senate’s legislative bureau warned that the proposed division into electoral districts “will result in Poland being the only country in the Union where the effective electoral threshold exceeds the EU maximum of 5% over three times.”

Senate experts point out that the electoral threshold will be as much as 16.5%.

The office also notes that Poland will be subject to the second highest electoral threshold in the EU (after Ireland), and that the amendment adopted on Friday “may be considered incompatible with European law”.

Opposition criticism

The opposition has also attacked the amendment.

Recalling the objections of Senate experts, Civic Platform (PO) Senator Piotr Florek assessed the changes as incompatible with EU law, because – in his opinion – it departs from the principle of proportionality and introduces an excessively high effective electoral threshold.

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He emphasized that by dividing Poland into 13 districts (each covering the area of ​​parts, all or more than one province), in which the seats will be settled, the 5% threshold enshrined in the act becomes an “illusion”.

While working on the bill in the Senate, PiS senator Jerzy Czerwiński asked about the exact date of the elections to the European Parliament. This, according to the electoral code, is to be ordered by the president of the country. The head of the National Electoral Office,  Magdalena Pietrzak, replied that they will take place on May 26.

“The electoral period falls on May 23-26. According to our regulations, the plebiscite is to take place on a non-working day, so it will be on May 26,” Pietrzak said.

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