In a last-minute attempt to grow voter presence at the booths on the 15th of October, Poland’s ruling party announced it would be combining the upcoming parliamentary elections with a referendum vote on not one, but four issues. In order to be able to move forward with the idea, an amendment to the Law on the Referendum was introduced and speedily passed through all stages of the legislative process – disregarding the objection of the Senate which was overruled by the Sejm on the 17th of August and signed into power by the President on the same day. The amendment adapts existing provisions so that the national referendum can be held at the same time as the presidential, parliamentary or EP elections. This provides the governing powers with an additional electoral campaign just for them – misnamed as the referendum – to draw public attention to the questions asked. After all, they were drafted by those seeking reelection and focus on matters most used in their political agenda.
The political nature of the 2023 referendum
The justification of the referendum possibly came from the bold presumption that – due to the nature of the questions raised in the planned referendum – a very specific type of voter would show up – one skeptical towards the raising of the retirement age and of adamant anti-refugee sentiment. Seeing as the referendum ballots are to be handed out simultaneously with ballots for the elections it seems likely that they may in fact become an additional incentive on who the vote will be cast for.
The following questions will be posed:
- Do you support the sale of state assets to foreign entities, leading to the loss of control of Polish women and men over strategic sectors of the economy?
- Do you support raising the retirement age, including restoring the retirement age to 67 for men and women?
- Do you support the acceptance of thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa, according to the forced relocation mechanism imposed by the European bureaucracy?
- Do you support the removal of the barrier on the border between the Republic of Poland and the Republic of Belarus?
The phrasing of the questions reveals the highly politicized nature of the referendum. Thus, they come against the backdrop of an ongoing governmental campaign aimed at convincing the public that should the opposition win, all of the questions presented above would be answered with a positive confirmation. In effect, it renders the referendum a part of the electoral campaign of the current ruling party. 40 national NGOs have submitted an open call to object to the referendum in its entirety. The authorities continue to reject such narrative, claiming that those critical of the idea do not understand the concept of “direct democracy” found in the Polish Constitution, which treats referenda as a crucial element thereof.
Direct democracy vs. an indirect political campaign
The mechanism of a referendum – as understood in Article 125 of the Polish Constitution – is framed as a legislator’s attempt to determine public opinion such that it can feed into final governmental decisions. It is seen as the exemplification of Article 4 of the Polish Constitution, which states that the sovereign power remains with the people of the Republic who can exercise it either through their representatives (parliamentarians, the government, the President) or indirectly.
A referendum may be held for two purposes. Either to gather feedback on issues crucial to the State (as is the wording expressly stated in the constitutional provisions) or, should the turnout of the referendum be higher than 50% of those entitled to vote, provide a binding decision on a specific topic [Article 125(3) of the Polish Constitution.] The latter was the case regarding the accession of Poland to the EU in 2003 when 77,45% of respondents were in favor of joining the EU.
However, the question asked in 2003 held no political subcontext and was not aimed at influencing any elections. It was drafted as follows: Do you consent to the accession of the Republic of Poland to the European Union? The possible answers were limited to yes/no. By contrast, the wording of the four questions to be asked to the Poles in October clearly aims to influence which party they choose to support with the ballot received simultaneously with the referendum card.
Using constitutional resources to further the governing party’s political agenda or at least provide additional grounds for steering the public debate onto issues framed as the referendum questions should be viewed as none other than an indirect electoral campaign. Notably, such a campaign remains free of charge for the governing coalition, given that the referendum is financed through public funding. The source of the funding is a special purpose reserve that the State creates to encompass, inter alia, any public expenses of which the detailed breakdown into a budget classification is not possible at the time of the preparation of the draft budget act.
A nationwide referendum may be ordered either by the Sejm by the majority of votes in the presence of at least half of the statutory number of deputies, or by the President of the Republic with the consent of the Senate expressed by the majority of votes in the presence of at least half of the statutory number of senators (Article 125(2)). In the current context, where the governing coalition holds the majority in the Polish Sejm and where the President remains close to those in power, these requirements mean that the opposition parties could not organize a referendum without the consent of the ruling coalition. However – not vice versa. This alone proves the political and unequal usage of the constitutionally available resources to further a chosen agenda. In consequence, a situation is created in which a constitutional mechanism aimed and designed at providing space for dialogue and taking into account the public’s opinion by legislators becomes a new weapon for those who have enough power to activate it. Such activation, when combined with an electoral campaign additionally fed with the narratives added to the public conversation by strategically formulated referendum questions, becomes an additional electoral campaign avenue. However, all this is an example of the political instrumentalization of a needed constitutional mechanism.
A boycott of indirect political narratives
Multiple lawyers dealing with the rule of law crisis in Poland have called for a boycott of the referendum. The goal is to avoid a turnout that is high enough to render the outcome binding. Legally, the only effective way of abstaining from the referendum but still being able to file a vote in the general elections is to have one’s refusal signed by the voting Commission. Once they receive their ballots, it has to be signed by the members of the Voting Commission (which is made up of regular citizens previously chosen for the positions in the Commissions). This, however, poses another constitutionally controversial issue. Requiring voters to openly oppose taking the referendum ballot, identifies them as being in opposition to the governing coalition’s wish to hold the referendum. This, in turn, may be seen as illegally created pressure onto a voter and may constitute a breach of the constitutionally guaranteed right to secrecy of the vote [Article 62 of the Polish Constitution]. After all, if a voter supports the governing coalition – they will most likely take part in the referendum. If they do not – they will most probably refrain. Either way, it seems that a seemingly innocent act of not taking a referendum voting card may be enough to undermine voter confidence in their free choice of who to cast their vote for without being influenced, which is unacceptable in a democratic setting – especially in light of the constitutional values of the election which are meant to be secret, equal, with no intermediaries, proportionate and remain the right of every citizen.
In a recent press conference, the Polish National Voting Commission underlined that although voters can simply not take the referendum ballot, they should not tear the paper due to the fact that this might trigger criminal liability. Thus, according to Article 248 of the Polish Criminal Code, the destruction, damage, concealment, alteration or forgery of protocols or other election or referendum documents may be punished by up to 3 years in prison.
It remains of much concern that ahead of the upcoming elections, voters are conflicted upon reaching for a referendum ballot solely due to the constitutionally based mechanism being politicized and used in the fight against democratic standards. It would seem that a mechanism enshrined in the national Constitution for the sole purpose of protecting the citizens’ right to directly state their opinion to the government is being used against their other existing rights – such as the right to secrecy around who they choose to cast their vote for. Once more, we are witnessing the abuse of constitutional provisions by the governing coalition to increase their chances of retaining power. This alone is a clear violation of the standard of a democratic country ruled by law, which – as stated in Article 2 of the Constitution – Poland should be. Using the referendum mechanism, which in itself is an exemplification of the government cooperating with the citizens in order to abuse their voters’ rights and potentially influence them during the upcoming elections, proves a very cynical understanding of the Constitution and what it should stand for.