For the first time since 1918, the Polish left has no representation in parliament. The country is now governed by a conservative nationalist party, which has managed to gain the support of sections of society that are amongst the most excluded and dissatisfied by the reality of capitalism in Poland. However, regularly around half of the electorate do not vote in parliamentary elections in Poland. The country has one of the lowest political participation rates in Europe, with an extremely low percentage of the population belonging to political parties. In order for the left to rebuild itself in Poland, it must examine how it can win the support of those who do not vote in elections and are not committed supporters of any of the right-wing parties. This article examines these issues through analysing the issue of non-voting in the context of other post-Communist countries inside the European Union and then looking in more depth at which sections of society do not vote and the possible reasons for their abstention from the democratic political process.
The issue of why people do not vote can generally be divided into two main perspectives.
The first point of view is that people do not vote because of the structural changes that have occurred in society and politics. It is postulated that there has been a move towards a post-materialist society and economy, with values of individualism and autonomy surpassing material values such as scarcity and security. On the left, this was encapsulated in the theory of the Third Way and the move of major social democratic parties (such as the British Labour Party and the German Social Democratic Party) towards the political centre during the 1990s. Accordingly, it is postulated that the left should therefore adapt itself to these socio-economic changes within the economy and society, accept the dictates of a free-market economy and express the post-materialist values of a supposedly expanding middle class. This first perspective has been brought into question by the global economic crisis, growing social inequalities, and the failure of the left to build itself when adopting liberal economic policies.
An alternative viewpoint, assumes that non-voting primarily occurs due to growing social inequalities and exclusion. This creates an expanding section of society that feels dissatisfied with the political system and the belief that they are not represented by any political party. There is a feeling that voting will not bring about any positive change in their lives nor address society’s inequalities. When people feel that they are not properly represented in this system then they will often decide not to vote or participate in politics. This tends to be the poorest and most excluded in society, which in turn increases these social disparities. As large parts of the left have moved towards the ‘political centre’, increasing sections of the electorate have lost their traditional representative in politics and have therefore looked towards supporting parties from the nationalist right or abstained from voting altogether.
The post-Communist transition in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), involved the dual creation of a capitalist economic system and representative democratic political systems. At the beginning of the 1990s all of the former communist countries underwent large economic contractions and a huge increase in unemployment and labour deactivation. The largest economic downturns occurred in the eastern countries of the region that belonged to the former Soviet Union. However, the economies in the west of the region also went through a huge contraction on a scale unprecedented in peacetime Europe. Poland has been considered to be one of the most successful economies in CEE, however even its level of GDP fell by almost one-quarter between 1989 and 1991 and unemployment rose from 1% to 16% from 1989 to 1993.
It was in this context of economic and social decline, that the democratic political systems in CEE were formed from 1989. Table One displays the different rounds of parliamentary elections that have taken place since the fall of Communism, in the CEE countries that belong to the European Union.
Table One: Parliamentary Election Turnouts in Central and Eastern Europe
If we take the region as a whole, we can observe that at the beginning of the transition turnouts in parliamentary elections were generally high. Therefore, in the first round of parliamentary elections in CEE, turnout exceeded 86% and in the second round 73%. In countries such as the Czech Republic, Croatia, and Latvia the turnouts were particularly high in these elections, far exceeding those in Western Europe. Although it may have been expected that these turnouts would decline after the initial euphoria of the political transition, the scale of this drop has been alarming. Therefore, by the fifth round of parliamentary elections, the turnout in CEE averaged just 58% and in the seventh round it stood at less than 55%. Although there has been a steady decline in the turnout at elections in Western Europe, this has not been on the same scale as those in CEE. For example, in the most recent parliamentary elections, the turnout in Germany was 75%, Italy, 80%, France 61% and the UK 63%.
The turnout in parliamentary elections in Poland has been consistently low, averaging just 48% (the lowest in the whole of CEE) and exceeding 50% just three times. At the beginning of the transition turnout in Poland was exceptionally low, standing at only 42.8%, the lowest of all the post-Communist countries under study. The trend in Poland has not followed most other CEE countries, as it has actually risen slightly over the past two and a half decades. However, in the last parliamentary elections turnout was only just above 50% and has averaged below 49% during this whole period. Simultaneously, we have seen other CEE countries converge with Poland’s very low rate of participation in parliamentary elections, with Romania now even having a significantly lower turnout than Poland during the last parliamentary elections.
Therefore the post-Communist countries in the EU have an increasing democratic deficit. These are young democracies without strong political parties and with a weak left. In order to understand the situation in Poland further, we shall look at the issue of (non-) voter stability.
Voter turnout stability refers to the extent to which those who vote or do not vote are the same groups of people from election to election. Stability in voter turnout is important as it provides predictability and inhibits a breakdown in the democratic process. It also facilitates the establishment of a party political system that is embedded within society and indicates that at least a section of society feels connected to certain political parties. If, on the other hand, there is high voter turnout instability then this creates a sense of volatility and indicates that there is less connection between sections of society and political parties.
Voter stability is measured through post-election surveys that ask people about whether they voted or not. Comparative data on voter stability has been collected by the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems’ project. They show that in Poland just 72.1% of the Polish electorate that voted in the last parliamentary election also voted in the one before, compared to an average of 78% in all the other countries studied. Poland has the second lowest level of voter stability amongst these post-Communist countries after the Czech Republic.
Part of the reason for this lack of voter stability in Poland is the weak connection between political parties and the electorate. Less than 1% of the Polish electorate is a member of any political party, which is the lowest number of any European Union country after Latvia (the European Union average is around 5%). This indicates how there is a void within the political system, in which people do not feel associated strongly with any political party and therefore lack loyalty to parties during elections. This situation has been heightened during the past decade as support for the left has sharply declined. Before looking at this issue in more detail we shall now consider which social groups are more or less likely to vote in parliamentary elections in Poland.
By understanding the social composition of non-voters, we are better able to comprehend which sections of the electorate the left would have to win over in order to expand its electoral base. The tables below display the turnouts for different social groups during parliamentary elections between 1997 and 2011. There is unfortunately no comparative data for the last parliamentary elections in Poland, which took place in 2015.
Table Two displays the turnouts in parliamentary elections according to income, with the first quarter referring to the lowest income bracket and fourth quarter representing the highest. As we can see, in all of the elections represented in the table, those with a higher income are significantly more likely to vote in elections than those with a lower income, with turnout increasing as income rises.
Table Two: Turnout in Parliamentary Elections in Poland According to Income, in per cent
When we look at the how education affects turnout (Table Three), we can see that those with a higher education are much more likely to vote in a parliamentary election in Poland than those with a lower education. For example in the 2011 parliamentary elections the turnout of those with a basic education was over 20 percentage points less than those with a higher education.
Table Three: Turnout in Parliamentary Elections in Poland According to Education, in per cent
The difference in turnout is lower when we consider gender (Table Four). Whilst in the previous four general elections more men than women voted in a parliamentary election, in 2011 slightly more women than men cast their vote.
Table Four: Turnout in Parliamentary Elections in Poland According to Gender, in per cent
The differences are more marked with regards to age (Table Five). The general trend shows that there is a positive correlation between age and voter turnout. In all elections the age group that has voted the most are those aged between 56 and 65, with the lowest turnout being in the 18 to 25 and 26 to 35 age brackets. One noticeable change is that turnout has grown significantly for the youngest age group during these elections, although around a half of voters in this age group still tend to abstain from voting.
Table Five: Turnout in Parliamentary Elections in Poland According to Age, in per cent
Finally we come to the issue of religiosity, measured by how often one attends church. Table Six shows how those who attend church regularly are much more likely to vote in an election than those who go less than once a week. This is important, as Poland is a relatively religious country, with over 90% of society defining themselves as Catholic. The rise of the conservative right in the country has brought politics and religion closer together, with sections of the Catholic Church playing a direct role in politics.
Table Six: Turnout in Parliamentary Elections in Poland According to Church Attendance, in per cent
Every Week or More Often
Less Than Once a Week
In summary, we can see that those who are better educated and earn more are more likely to vote in elections. This means that the more socially excluded and disadvantaged voters make up a greater share of non-voters. Simultaneously, elder voters are more likely to vote in an election, with young people abstaining heavily from the electoral process. Also more religious people tend to vote more than those who practice religion less. This is more likely to favour the parties of the conservative right, which are strongly connected to sections of the Catholic Church.
These figures on the social composition of voters reveal a couple of interesting points when we consider specific elections. Firstly, in 2007 the first conservative nationalist government (led by the Law and Justice Party – PiS) was defeated after winning the 2005 elections. Here we can see that the major change in voter turnout was a very large increase in participation by those with higher incomes, a higher education and those who attend Church less regularly. We can conclude that this section of society is more drawn to liberalism and secularism and voted negatively against the conservative government of PiS. Secondly, in 2001 the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) won over 40% of the vote, but this declined to just 15% in 2005 (see below). The 2001 vote was primarily the result of an increase in votes by people with a lower income and education and those who attend Church less regularly, which then again fell significantly when the SLD was defeated in 2005. This shows how the left was able to mobilise the more socially disadvantaged sections of society along with those who are less religious and that their electoral decline was partly due to losing the support of these social groups.
We shall now examine some of these issues in more depth, by looking at voter turnout and support for the left.
Following the collapse of Communism the left vote was extremely small, with left-wing ideas and organisations discredited. During the early 1990s the left began to reorganise itself with the main party of the left consolidating around the ‘post-Communist’ Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). Alongside the SLD some left-wing parties were formed that were organised around organisations and individuals connected to the former opposition movement, most prominently the Labour Union (UP). The combined vote of the left in 1991 was just above 10% (Figure One). However, by 1993 this had grown to more than 22%, and the SLD was able to form a coalition government with the Polish Farmers Party (PSL). Although the SLD lost power in 1997, it actually expanded its support, with the left winning over 30% of the votes. Then in 2001, left parties scored their greatest electoral success, winning more than 41% of the votes, leading to the SLD forming a coalition government with UP and PSL.
This government implemented a series of neoliberal economic reforms, refrained from introducing any progressive social reforms (such as liberalising the abortion law), and supported the war in Iraq. This led to a sharp fall in support for the left, declining to just 15% in 2005. The left has not been able to rebuild its support since this time and politics has been dominated by two parties of the right: Law and Justice (PiS) and Citizens’ Platform (PO). Support for the left continued to decline until the 2011 elections in which the SLD was replaced as the main self-proclaimed party of the left by the liberal populist Palikot Movement. This new party had declined in support and been incorporated into an alliance with the SLD by the time of the 2015 elections, when support for the left fell to just 11%. These elections represented a historical defeat for the left as they were the first time since the Polish Republic was formed after World War One in which the left had failed to enter parliament. The SLD had stood as part of an electoral coalition, failing to cross the 8% threshold needed for coalitions to enter parliament (for parties it is 5%). Meanwhile a new young left-wing party (Together) was created, winning more than 3% of the vote, meaning that, although it cannot enter parliament, it now has access to state funding.
We can see in Figure One that the rise in support for the left in the 1990s did not coincide with a growth in the turnout at elections. Also, the subsequent fall in the left vote after 2001, did not lead to any significant drop in the turnout rate. With turnout stability low in Poland, as we know, it thus seems that the left lost a large section of its electorate and that many of them may have become non-voters, while others chose to vote for other parties. Also, when the left gained its largest vote in 2001, it was able to mobilise people such as those on low incomes and with a basic education more than in any other election. However, in 2011 the proportion of those who voted in these social groups had almost returned to the higher level of 2001, showing that right-wing parties have been able to gain the support of this part of the electorate that had previously voted for the left.
As noted above the left vote collapsed in 2005 and it has never since come close to matching the more than 40% it had won in 2001. The instability within the Polish political system and the lack of party loyalty amongst left voters is evident when we look at how those who supported the SLD in 2001 voted in 2005. Only 30% of the 2001 SLD electorate then voted for the party in 2005, with 19% voting for PO and 17% casting their votes for PiS. Also 37% of those who voted for the SLD in 2001 abstained from voting in 2005. We can further observe the disintegration of the SLD vote when we look at how those who voted for the SLD in 2005 then voted in 2007. Here we can see that only 30% of them again voted for the SLD in 2007 and a staggering 45% actually switched to voting for PO. Those who define themselves as being left-wing are also less likely to vote in an election than those who say they are right-wing. Therefore, just 66% of left-wing voters say that they will vote in the next election, whilst 77% of right-wing voters declare that they will vote.
The decline of the left vote has therefore involved many of its former supporters both abstaining from the electoral process and/or shifting their support to other parties. In order to better understand how the left may appeal to non-voters we shall examine why it is that people do not vote in Poland
So far we have seen that those who are more socially disadvantaged (according to income or education) are less likely to vote in a parliamentary election in Poland. This helps us to confirm that social inequalities and exclusion are major causes of non-voting in Poland and that the ‘post-materialist’ thesis that people abstain due to individual satisfaction with their lives can be rejected. In turn this means that a return to a Third Way strategy of seeking to expand into the political ‘centre’ would not attract new voters to the left. This conclusion is further strengthened when we analyse the reasons that people give for not voting in elections.
A major reason for voting is that people wish to influence government policy and the activities of the state. Over 95% of those who declare that they will vote in the next elections in Poland agree with the statement that it is worth voting in order to influence the activities of the state. However, less than 60% of those who say that they will not vote agree with this statement. Also, only 9% of declared voters in a future election agree with the statement that it is not worth voting as it will not change anything; compared to 52% who state that they will not vote. Furthermore, an alarming 34% of those who say they will not vote agree with the statement that it is not worth voting because elections in Poland are usually unfair, compared with just 6% of those who declare they will vote.
We can therefore observe a huge disconnect between a section of the electorate and the democratic process in Poland. These people tend to be the most socially disadvantaged and further believe that voting will not influence government policy, that it will not change anything and many also believe the election process is itself unfair.
The question of non-voting is a major issue in the post-Communist countries, particularly in Poland which has consistently had one of the lowest turnout rates in Europe. The left vote has also significantly contracted over the past decade, and evidence shows that left-wing voters are more likely to abstain from voting or to switch their vote to other parties. It is important that the left examines in more detail the issue of non-voting and gains an understanding of who these people are and why large sections of the electorate are not voting. As we have shown, voting behaviour in Poland is very unstable and the group of non-voters is changeable. In general those who are more socially disadvantaged are much more likely not to vote in elections, which should be a major focus of left parties in elections. Large parts of this group do not believe that they have any influence over the state or that voting would change things for the better. Therefore, in order to rebuild its base in society, the left has to develop a structure and programme that can appeal to these voters and convince them that a left vote is not wasted but can contribute to progressive social change.
1. Ronald Inglehart, The Silent Revolution, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977.
2. Anthony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder, The Third Way, Berlin, 1999; Anthony Giddens, The Third Way. The Renewal of Social Democracy, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998.
3. Gavin Rae, Poland’s Return to Capitalism. From the Socialist Bloc to the European Union, London: Taurus, 2012.
4. I have tried to group these rounds of elections as close as possible to those in Poland, although of course some countries have had more or less elections in this timescale.
5. In this article the first election I have included in Poland is the parliamentary election held in 1991. In 1989 a semi-free election was held, in which candidates from the Solidarity opposition movement won the vast majority of votes in those seats it was allowed to contest.
6. Mikołaj Cześnik, ‘Voter Turnout Stability – Evidence from Poland’, Polish Sociological Review 165 (2009), pp.107-122.
7. http://www.cses.org/ (accessed 25 September 2016)
8. Ingrid van Biezen, ‘The decline in party membership across Europe means that political parties need to reconsider how they engage with the electorate.’ LSE European Politics and Polity <http://bit.ly/YjotAq> (accessed 24 September 2016)
9. Data in this section is taken from the Polish National Election Study and Polish Centre for Public Opinion Research.
10. This has included for example some priests advising their congregations during Mass whom they should vote for in an election and conservative parties mobilising people through collecting signatures for candidates outside of Church.
11. I count the left vote as the sum vote for all parties that define themselves as left-wing. This self-definition conception of left wing is problematic. For example, in the 2011 elections the Palikot Movement defined itself as a left-wing party, although it was more of a centre liberal party. However, for within the scope of this article, the self-definition concept provides the clearest way of calculating support for the left. The following parties have been included as left-wing parties: 1991: Democratic Left Alliance and Solidarity Labour; 1993: Democratic Left Alliance and Labour Union; 1997: Democratic Left Alliance and Labour Union; 2001: Democratic Left Alliance-Labour Union and Polish Socialist Party; 2005: Democratic Left Alliance, Social Democracy Poland and the Polish Labour Party; 2007: Left and Democrats and Polish Labour Party; 2011: Democratic Left Alliance and Polish Labour Party; 2015: United Left and Together.
12. All statistics in this section are taken from the Polish Centre for Public Opinion Research.