For sale: Euro seats

By Chris Mularczyk
Published February 16th 2003 in Warsaw Business Journal

Next June some Poles will vote in the European parliamentary elections on whom to send to the plushy pastures and eateries of Strasbourg. Only a minority will actually turn out.

Proportional representation will be used to elect people to the Brussels gravy train. That daemon seed of Polish politics will strike again and reap a grim harvest.

A first draft of the necessary legislation is already in the Sejm. It envisages dividing the country into 13 gigantic multimember regional constituencies. Each constituency will elect between three and eight members of the European Parliament. There will be a 5% threshold for the participating party lists.

The runners and riders in the race are already jockeying for position. The runners are the candidates looking for party lists to start for. The riders are their sponsors who will pay to get them elected. They will pay the party to get their candidates onto the list and will fork out for the individual campaigns of the candidates, too.

Lip service will be paid to the transparency of campaign financing. Restrictions on campaign spending will be got round. Those who end up in Brussels will have debts of gratitude to pay. Few will want to follow in the footsteps of Jacek Debski and forget about who their benefactor was.

For those of us covering politics, it will all be a case of deja vu. Ever since the introduction of proportional representation, politics has followed the pattern described above.

In 1989, the country’s democratic opposition won a great electoral victory in the half-free elections held under the French system of two-round majority voting. The Solidarnosc folk then chose to give all that away and to plunge the country into years of political instability by opting for proportional representation for future elections.

The introduction of proportional representation had a predictable effect. It led to the formation of scores of parties with names I will spare you the boredom of listing. It result ed in permanent coalition governments with each administration spending most of its time and energy on wrangling over posts and trying to score one over its coalition partners.

The small and shaky parties which were formed to take advantage of the voting system were further weakened by internal infighting over places on the list and mini-civil wars during the elections themselves as candidates competed for voters’ favours. Fragmentation was built into the system and remains with us until the present day.

T hat huge constituencies are needed to make a regional list system work means that there is no genuine link between the member and his constituents. Take the example of Warsaw: a constituency with more than one million voters. Reaching the voters costs a packet. If you want to have a chance of being elected to the Sejm, you have to be willing to spend a minimum of E100,000. Now multiply this by a factor of almost 10 for the European elections (there are 460 deputies in the Sejm, whereas there will be only 54, but fantastically better paid, Euro-MPs).

We will at least be spared the most distasteful scenes that take place when the Sejm, elected by proportional representation, begins to form a government. (The European parliament does cut real power, but does not, like the American model, throw forth an administration.) Here the parties congregate in smoke-filled rooms and cut deals above the heads of the electorate. No-one asks the voters if they really want the coalition which emerges.

The ease with which parties can form and secure representation means that politicians are tempted to jump ship when a better offer comes along. They leap from party to party like fleas hopping from one animal to the next. In this parliament, already more than 30 deputies have changed parties, and we are only just over a year into its four-year term. In the last parliament, more than 100 of 460 deputies changed their party colours.

No-one in the European parliament has managed to be a member of the European Liberal, the European Peoples Party (Christian Democrats) and the Socialists caucuses in one five-year term of office. I will agree to a generous wager with anyone that a Polish MEP will achieve this feat with time to spare.

It is true that proportional representation is used for the European elections in all the current member states, even if they use majority voting in their domestic elections. This is done to ensure that all significant parties get a chance to participate and because the European elections are not about electing a government . But in most of these countries there is a stable party system in operation.

We do not have a stable party system, so there is no point in bending backwards to be fair since it is more than likely that the people elected will change their party colours at the drop of a euro coin. Majority voting would at least ensure that some independent candidates could stand and bypass party hierarchies.

In reality there is no way for a change in the voting system to be brought about. Every party fears that majority voting would hurt it most. The inertia of the system has created a consensus for the status quo which ensures a tyranny of coalition politics.

Expect the sitting members to defend the system that elected them. The trade union of members elected by proportional representation is already a closed powerful gathering of elites. The European elections will strengthen it further still.