The Warsaw Voice » Politics » Monthly - August 28, 2015
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Referendum Row
   
Poles will go to the polls Sept. 6 to vote in a controversial referendum that was unexpectedly announced by former President Bronisław Komorowski just weeks before the end of his term. Meanwhile, in a televised address to the nation Aug. 20, new President Andrzej Duda equally unexpectedly called for another referendum—with additional questions—to be held together with parliamentary elections Oct. 25.

In the September referendum, voters will be asked three questions: whether they are in favor of introducing single-seat constituencies in parliamentary elections; whether they are in favor of maintaining the current system of financing political parties from public money; and whether they are in favor of introducing a principle whereby any doubts in interpreting tax regulations would be resolved in favor of taxpayers.

The September referendum is predominately a response to demands by Paweł Kukiz, an independent candidate who won an astonishing 20.8 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election earlier this year. This veteran rock musician has for years been pressing for single-member constituencies to be introduced in Poland to replace the current proportional representation system.

Komorowski announced the referendum a day after the first round of the presidential election, in what many saw as a blatant bid to woo Kukiz supporters ahead of the second round. This bid proved unsuccessful and opposition candidate Andrzej Duda won the race for the presidency. But the referendum decreed by Komorowski must be held and the campaign in the run-up to it has sharply divided Poles.

The opposition Law and Justice (PiS) party demanded that three more questions be posed to citizens. These were proposed by the party’s candidate for prime minister, Beata Szydło. PiS wants to ask voters, first, whether they are in favor of reinstating the previous retirement age of 60 years for women and 65 for men; second, if they are in favor of abolishing compulsory school education for six-year-olds; and third, whether they want forests in the country to stay state-owned rather than being privatized.

Constitutionalists were divided over whether any additional questions could be asked in the referendum announced by Komorowski. Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz said that no new questions could be asked nor could the referendum be revoked altogether. Any additional questions could only be asked in a separate new referendum that could take place at another date should the new president so decide, Kopacz added. Duda’s proposal clearly fits into this line of reasoning.

The United Left, an election coalition of the Democratic Left Alliance, the Palikot Movement and several smaller parties with no parliamentary seats, have proposed that referendum voters should also be asked whether they want to keep compulsory religious instruction in schools and whether they want the Church Fund maintained. The fund receives hefty amounts from government coffers for health and pension insurance for clergymen.

But Duda completely ignored the demands of the left-wingers, who have little clout compared to Poland’s center-right and conservative parties.

For a referendum in Poland to be valid, more than 50 percent of eligible voters must turn out on the day. So far, referendum turnout in Poland has exceeded 50 percent only once, in 2003 in a vote in which Poles said “yes” to their country joining the European Union. However, that referendum was, exceptionally, held over two days and was preceded by an unusually intensive campaign in which both the president and the government were involved. This time around, such unanimity among the country’s key political players is out of the question. The chances of turnout exceeding 50 percent in the September referendum are seen as very slim. Widespread disinterest by voters would deal a body blow to Kukiz’s group, showing that the unusual mobilization of his supporters before the first round of the presidential elections could have been just a flash in the pan.

The Oct. 25 referendum, meanwhile, stands a good chance of being valid—if it takes place. Holding the vote alongside parliamentary elections significantly increases the chances of referendum turnout exceeding 50 percent.

Now the decision on whether or not the second referendum will be held rests with the Senate, which has two weeks to respond to the president’s proposal. The upper house is dominated by the ruling Civic Platform (PO) party and may decide to reject the president’s request, thus triggering the first open showdown with the head of state. Otherwise a double vote will be held on election day—an unprecedented event in the last quarter of a century in Poland.