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Constitutional Referendum in Poland

Can the Popular Will Overcome Party Power Struggles?

14.03.2005 · Position von Kurt Klotzle

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Poland is one of ten EU member states that will hold a national referendum on the Constitutional Treaty. Even more than in other member states, the constitutional referendum has become the subject of domestic rather than international politics in Poland, with the governing Social Democrats engaged in bitter dispute with opposition parties over when and how to hold the referendum. This has largely to do with the fact that voter turnout in Poland must exceed 50% of eligible voters for the referendum to be declared valid. This 50% threshold would present a formidable obstacle to any EU member state. For example, Spain’s successful referendum on 20 February 2005 registered a turnout of 42%. Moreover, Polish turnout for the European elections in June 2004 was a dismal 20.87%, the second lowest in the entire EU.

The pro-constitution Social Democrats have argued strongly that the referendum should be held on the same date as presidential elections in Fall 2005. This arrangement would not only guarantee higher turnout but would allow the Social Democrats to present themselves as model Europeans while possibly distracting the electorate from a string of political scandals that have left the government’s approval rating hovering at around 10%.

Opposition parties reject this proposal. Confident that they will sweep the Social Democrats from power in parliamentary elections later this year, they are reluctant to allow the referendum to be organized in a way that might strengthen the Social Democrats’ hand. The positions of these parties toward the Constitutional Treaty cover a fairly narrow spectrum. The right-wing Law and Justice party, the ultra-conservative Catholic-nationalist League of Polish Families and the agrarian-populist Self-Defence openly oppose the constitution. In contrast, the leading opposition party – the centre-right Civic Platform – has recently backed off its anti-constitution stance to take up a more neutral position. These parties want the referendum to be held as late as possible, preferably in 2006, either separately or in combination with local elections. The opposition is banking on the expectation that the constitution will fail elsewhere first – perhaps in referenda in the Czech Republic or the United Kingdom – thereby allowing Poland (a) to avoid being the first member state to reject the constitution, an act that would have severe ramifications for Poland’s standing in the EU, and (b) to await the renegotiation of the Constitutional Treaty in terms more favourable to Poland.

Absent the 50% threshold, the referendum would almost certainly be approved overwhelmingly. Polish public opinion toward EU membership has improved steadily since Poland joined the EU in 2004. Key factors here are the tangible impact of increased EU funds since accession and the proud role that Poland played as representatives of the EU in mediating the Ukrainian election crisis. As a result, Poland is one of the few EU member states in which popular support for the constitution is increasing. According to the latest (February 2005) poll conducted by CBOS, a leading public opinion research institute in Poland, 64% of Poles support ratification of the EU constitution while only 7% oppose ratification. This compares to 21% against in July 2004 and 11% against in November 2004 (Two-thirds of Poles back EU constitution: poll, EU Business, 26 February 2005 ).

Certain experts and policymakers are looking for a way out of this dilemma. For example, the Institute for Public Affairs, a Polish think tank based in Warsaw, recently proposed a "political package" whereby political parties agree to hold a constitutional referendum in 2006 while simultaneously agreeing to a change in Polish law that would reduce the required turnout level (Decyzja w sprawie Europy, Institute of Public Affairs).

And signs are improving that the Poles themselves may liberate their interests from domestic political party intrigues that threaten to hold the EU constitution captive: in the February 2005 poll cited above, 66% of those questioned stated that they intended to vote in a future referendum.

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