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        Gradual Erosion of the Individual Mandate and the Shift to Majoritarianism in Poland
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In recent years, Poland has joined a growing number of countries plagued by democratic backsliding (Bermeo Reference Bermeo2003) as opposition parties have failed to challenge the ruling party’s infringement on the rule of law (Nalepa Reference Nalepa2016; Reference Nalepa2017). Many pundits, policy makers, and even scholars (Sadurski Reference Sadurski2018) have been quick to blame this state of affairs on the weakness of formal institutions.

We take a different view and argue that institutional features blocking the opposition from effectively limiting grand policy changes have been in place for at least a decade. Furthermore, strong rather than weak institutions—particularly those governing the executive–legislative relations—allowed for shutting out the opposition from any institutionalized forms of protest.

At the time of Poland’s transition to democratic rule in 1989, provisions were put in place to suppress the emergence of strong parties. The rationale behind this choice was clear: majoritarianism was not a viable basis for establishing power sharing due to conflict among elites relating to pre-transition matters. In contrast, consensus institutions offered the flexibility necessary to reduce the power of factions (Lijphart Reference Lijphart2012).

Three key institutions were used to implement this consensus model: (1) strong individual mandates of individual legislators, (2) recorded voting, and (3) the open-list proportional representation (OLPR) electoral system. The first was meant to enable private Members of Parliament (MPs) to propose legislation whenever they could gather 15 signatures from other private MPs. Cabinet proposals had to pass stringent requirements. Recorded voting was supposed to signal to voters how their representatives voted so they could hold them accountable. By allowing voters to control the order in which candidates from a party list enter the legislature, OLPR was to raise the costs of party discipline (Carey Reference Carey2007) and result in less unified and weaker parties (Kitschelt Reference Kitschelt1995).

We take a different view and argue that institutional features blocking the opposition from effectively limiting grand policy changes have been in place for at least a decade. Furthermore, strong rather than weak institutions—particularly those governing the executive–legislative relations—allowed for shutting out the opposition from any institutionalized forms of protest.

In summary, proportional-representation parliamentarism “should have” promoted consensus institutions, but it did not. Instead, the “center of gravity” among the three branches of government shifted to the cabinet—specifically, the office of the prime minister, who proceeded to use other governmental institutions, especially the legislature, as an extension of his powers (Nalepa Reference Nalepa2016). Party leaders eventually overcame institutional handicaps and turned legislative prerogatives into tools of majoritarian control. The accumulation of the leadership powers of the lower house (i.e., the Sejm) in the hands of a single agent—namely, the Marszałek, who became an emissary of the ruling party—is only one example. Eventually, even the powers of private members to propose legislation more easily than cabinet members were usurped by ruling parties that banned their members from cosponsoring bills with other parties’ members and used their own members to propose legislation that had been prepared in ministerial departments. Consequently, whereas in the third Sejm, 30% of proposals that reached a final vote came from private opposition MPs, in the current eighth term, very few proposals made it to the floor agenda (Nalepa Reference Nalepa2017).

Recorded voting, according to Carey (Reference Carey2007), should decrease the power that political leaders hold over their members because it makes them aware of constituents’ observing them and toeing the party line that much more difficult. However, in large assemblies in which the volume of votes is high, the constituency pressure is overshadowed by the ease with which party leaders can monitor how their members voted. Indeed, the fact that Sejm votes started being recorded as roll calls stems exclusively from the collective action of party leaders, who bypassing the Sejm’s rules for recording, pressured the Sejm staff to release to them—first secretly and then publicly—the rolls of every single Sejm vote.

Undermining parties via OLPR was supposed to promote the independence of individual legislators. However, party leaders used candidate selection to recruit like-minded members who did not need to be disciplined to vote with the party leadership because they already shared their leaders’ policy. A by-product of this process was the emergence of programmatic parties.

Whereas scholars applaud the emergence of programmatic parties (Kitschelt Reference Kitschelt1995), in a new democracy such as Poland, the combination of programmaticism, majoritarianism, and high societal polarization is particularly threatening. Once the majoritarian control of the Sejm—largely emulating that of the US House of Representatives (Rohde Reference Rohde1991), although without strong institutional checks characteristic of the US Constitution (Patty Reference Patty2007)—had been established, functioning as an incoherent party was no longer an option. To even have a chance at governing—a task at which both Civic Platform and Law and Justice (PiS) succeeded—acting as a unified party has become an absolute necessity. Moreover, while in the government, a party had the means and—given high polarization—the incentive to shut out any voice from the opposition. Consequently, by 2018, the only opposition to the rule of PiS is coming from street protesters and the European Union.

REFERENCES

Bermeo, Nancy Gina. 2003. Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times: The Citizenry and the Breakdown of Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Carey, John M. 2007. “Competing Principals, Political Institutions, and Party Unity in Legislative Voting.” American Journal of Political Science 51 (1): 92107.
Kitschelt, Herbert. 1995. “Formation of Party Cleavages in Post-Communist Democracies: Theoretical Propositions.” Party Politics 1 (4): 447–72.10.1177/1354068895001004002
Lijphart, Arend. 2012. Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Nalepa, Monika. 2016. “Party Institutionalization and Legislative Organization: The Evolution of Agenda Power in the Polish Parliament.” Comparative Politics 48 (3): 353–72.
Nalepa, Monika. 2017. “Adapting Legislative Agenda-Setting Models to Parliamentary Regimes: Evidence from the Polish Parliament.” Studies in Logic, Grammar and Rhetoric 50 (1): 181203.10.1515/slgr-2017-0024
Patty, John W. 2007. “The House Discharge Procedure and Majoritarian Politics.” Journal of Politics 69 (3): 678–88.
Rohde, David W. 1991. Parties and Leaders in the Post-Reform House. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Sadurski, Wojciech. 2018. “How Democracy Dies (in Poland): A Case Study of Anti-Constitutional Populist Backsliding.” Sydney Law School Research Paper No. 18/01. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3103491.