Parliamentary elections 2015 in Poland: trends and tactics

When analysing the structure of party supporters and the shifts in their preferences, parliamentary elections 2015 in Poland can be seen as a reversal of several trends which have already shaped the Polish politics since 1989.

The first interesting change is that no left-wing party has made it to the parliament, which is particularly surprising in the face of current European socio-political divisions. According to Stefano Bartolini and Peter Mair, these divisions are reflected in the corresponding embedment of empirical and normative expressions of political activity in the form of right- and left-wing parties.

Hence, the lack of a left-wing party in the parliament is a peculiar phenomenon which relatively rarely occurs in consolidated democracies and is rather of a structural than functional nature. Another reversed electoral trend is the rise of support for parties and coalitions which failed to reach the election thresholds. Since 1993, their number has been decreasing, stabilising at an acceptable level below 5%. 2015 saw a significant change in this respect: the number of votes cast for the parties which did not gain seats in the parliament exceeded 15%.

Thirdly, for the first time since the beginning of the transition, the election was won by a party[1] whose position within the elected parliament may be considered as ideologically extreme. Until now, the parliament consisted of parties that were more right- or left-oriented than the winners. In the case of AWS (Solidarity Electoral Action), it was ROP (Movement of the Reconstruction of Poland), in the case of SLD (Democratic Left Alliance) – Samoobrona (Self-Defence), and in the case of PiS in 2005 – LPR (League of Polish Families). Now, the seats to the right of PiS are taken only by representatives of the government, which may rise to an image of symbolic importance.

Saint Matthew brings about #good change

The victory of PiS should not be considered as a surprise, but rather a result of a consistently pursued election strategy. The analysis of the distribution of voting power shows that the party won among almost all main socio-demographic categories. PO (Civic Platform) attracted slightly stronger support only from groups of minor statistical importance – owners of companies (0.8 pp more than PiS) and managers/specialists (2.9 pp more than PiS). Eight years in the opposition allowed PiS to understand the most important electoral and demographic patterns and to finally win in the categories that Jarosław Kaczyński’s party had not been able to occupy beforehand.

The first and most crucial element of the strategy was to make strong gains among those who used to support PO. PiS managed to attract more voters than the party led by Ewa Kopacz. The party also won the majority of votes among people with higher education (30.4% to 26,7%) and residents of the largest cities (30% to 28.4%). It won also among adolescents and students (23.9%) – here, PO was in fourth position (13.2%), overtaken by KORWiN (21.3%) and Kukiz’15 (20.2%).

Voters with higher education

It should be noted that the party led by Kaczyński managed to attract even more supporters in the categories considered as its strongholds, securing 46.8% of the votes among inhabitants of rural areas, 36% among inhabitants of small towns, as well as 52.3% among farmers and 45.4% among workers.

Voters from rural areas

The strategic source of PiS success is its understanding of the impact of the electoral cycle, which is a synergy-based link between successive elections. The fact that four general elections took place within a year and a half resulted in political parties running permanent campaigns and their principal task was to utilize its potential. Particularly interesting is an observable interdependence between election results and a polling day.

If polls took place within a year after presidential elections, the parliament usually consisted of parties which were close to the newly elected head of state (Wałęsa-Olszewski, Kwaśniewski-Miller, Komorowski-Tusk). This is due to a transfer of preferences from personalised decisions which are easier to comprehend (presidential elections) to more abstract party (parliamentary) elections. Additionally, PiS managed to ensure an internal consolidation of those who supported the party in 2011, with as many as 89.7% of these constituents voting for the Kaczyński’s party again.

Drift of PiS voters from 2011

The head-to-head race during the elections in 2014 made PiS realise that, with regard to Bronisław Komorowski’s presidency, the high level of personalisation of presidential elections in Poland could boost a change in the party image. The candidate supported by PiS was younger, better educated and more dynamic than the then-incumbent president. Andrzej Duda ran an outstandingly successful campaign, both in terms of communication and the result, which enabled PiS to make gains in new segments and mobilised the party’s core constituents. Observing Andrzej Duda’s supporters voting behaviour during parliamentary elections it is important to note that 72.6% of them chose PiS, 9.5% – Kukiz’15, 5% – KORWiN, and only 3.1% cast their vote for PO.

Votes of Andrzej Duda’s supporters in parliamentary elections

The unquestionable success of PiS in parliamentary elections led to the election coalition of PiS, SP (Solidarity for Poland) and PRJG (Poland Together United Right) forming the government. It should be, noted, however, that the mechanism of the election system was influenced by Saint Matthew’s effect (I tell you to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken. Luke 19,26). The already mentioned high number of non-parliamentary groupings, in line with the logic of the D’Hondt method (translation of the number of votes received into the number of seats due), achieved the effect of 51% mandates for PiS which received 37% of the votes. However, had ZL (United Left) secured an additional 0.5 pp and KORWiN an additional 0.25 pp of the votes, PiS would have obtained approximately 30 seats less, losing the majority in the Sejm.

Pride comes before a fall: Shogun, come over here

The reasons for the electoral victory of PiS provide to a certain extent also a diagnosis of PO’s failure. The subsequent polls in the 2014-2015 election cycle saw the weakening of the parliamentary authority, while Bronisław Komorowski’s defeat manifested the final omen of prof. Staniszkis’s forecast about PO’s governance coming to a sad end. Fuelling internal defeatism, the poor leadership of Ewa Kopacz as well as attempts to reach left-leaning voters during the campaign – a step incomprehensible from the strategic point of view – were milestones on the path towards its electoral defeat.

This resulted in a move away from the second ideologically largest segment of the voters (centre-right, ca. 25% of the voters) and, in practice, constituted a step in favorem PiS and .Nowoczesna (Modern). This mistake was irreversible even despite efforts to reach centre-left voters (ca. 15% of the electorate), as PO had to compete with parties which, in terms of ideology, are firmly rooted on the left of the political spectrum – ZL and Partia Razem (Together Party). Such behaviour bespeaks a wrong assessment or the lack of understanding of electoral trends in Poland. When compared to 2011, in the 2015 elections the average voter moved significantly to the right, scoring 6.36 on an 11-point left-right scale (5.28 four years earlier).

No internal mobilisation of the party, incomprehensible decisions concerning the programme and the defeat in presidential elections got PO’s core constituents into a state of anomy. The anti-PiS sentiment ceased to propel a significant majority of them to vote, which decomposed the old structure of support. Taking into account the constituents of individual parties in 2011, only the supporters of Ruch Palikota (Palikot’s Movement) turned out to be more disloyal and voted for other parties, in contrast to PiS constituents. Just over a half of those who voted for PO in 2011 supported the same party four years later (51.9%). The rest drifted away to .Nowoczesna (13.3%), PiS (10.9%), Kukiz’15 (6.4%) and ZL (6.3%).

Drift of PO voters from 2011

Chronicle of projected death

Bearing in mind the fact that up until now the parties which have lost representation in the Sejm have never re-entered the parliament (independently), it seems that the political life of SLD has come to an end. While PO did its best not to win the elections, there were lots of electoral patterns which did not favour left-wing parties. The first of them is a general trend among Polish voters to support right-wing parties. Since 2009, the percentage of Poles who declare themselves as left-leaning decreased by almost five percentage points (to 22.3%). Also some crucial determinants of voting behaviour in Poland do not favour the left, one of them being the weakness of the mechanism of economic voting which builds the support for left-wing parties (due to the fact that social demands are raised).

Polish voters are driven by axiological rather than economic issues. Also the temporal dimension of voting decisions is not favourable to left-wing parties, which usually raise demands with a prospective reference (forward-looking). Among Polish voters, it is retrospective motivation that prevails (almost 2/3 of the indications). It is aimed at settling old scores, which is common among centre-right and right-wing parties. Finally, voting behaviours during elections correlate with religious practice more than with any other social factor. This link favours to parties which refer to religion and cherish conservative values, and no left-wing party can be considered as one of them.

Waiting for the spring

The dynamics of political events after the appointment of Beata Szydło’s government gave hope that there would be no petrification for the support for individual parties. However, three months after the elections, these hopes seem to be vain – there are no significant changes visible in the electoral market. The studies conducted in January confirm the presence of mechanisms which could be observed also after the previous elections. The first one relies in awarding the winning party a bonus: after the elections, respondents tend to support the party that came in first.

This mechanism has stabilised the ratings of PiS close to the level reached in the elections. A reverse syndrome affects PO and other parties which failed to succeed (SLD, PSL [Polish People’s Party], TR [aka Palikot’s Movement]): some of their supporters have drifted away. The decreasing support for PO (and, to a certain extent, SLD) translates into the growing support for .Nowoczesna, which took away some of these parties’ supporters already in the elections.

Political party preferences in January 2016

However, all these developments fall under mechanical effects that characterise the electoral market. A more lasting reshuffle of political preferences may occur in spring, and particularly when more demonstrations are staged, which has already been announced by all parties.


This paper was drafted as part of an election dossier run by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in cooperation with Res Publica Nowa. The data contained in the graphs come from IBRiS exit polls. The opinions and conclusions presented in this paper are those of the author alone and do not have to reflect the official position of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.


[1] To be more precise - by a coalition; however, it is an acceptable simplification to say that the election was won by PiS [the Law and Justice Party].