A Brief Guide To Polish Politics: Part 1 – The Office of the President

It is my first political text I decided to put online. The reason for that is to give my non-Polish friends some idea how things are done in my country, because it is a bit hard to frame it in terms of Western democracies. There is nothing strange here, since our democracy is just 26 years old, therefore only slightly older than me, and due to environmental reasons it must have evolved in different way as it did in Western Europe.

The aim of this text is to explain way Polish politics operates currently. Since we had presidential elections recently and its second round is due to next week, I decided to begin with the head of the state – The President of The Republic of Poland.

In this part, I am going to introduce the voting process, who can become the President of the Republic of Poland and what are his/her most important (super)powers.

In the next entries, I will try to give a picture about Polish political scene, which might be useful if you want to follow general elections coming this autumn.

I am also not going to focus on the history further than the history of the Third Polish Republic, so if you want to know historical facts about the office of president or any other topic covered, just use Google. You know how, right?

How is the President elected?

Poland is one of not too many countries, where people vote for president in direct elections. So everyone who has voting rights (i.e. is a Polish citizen above 18 years old) can go and vote for one of the candidates in a voting station closest to the place of residence. You are out of the town on that day? You can still vote wherever you are, if you ask your municipality for the proper certificate enough in advance.

You live abroad (like I do)? Then you can either register online to vote in one of the stations established abroad by Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They usually operate in Polish embassies and consulates, but not only. Since recently one can also register for mail voting. Then, wherever you live, you can receive your ballot by mail, fill it in and send it back. In the country this is also convenient option for elder and disabled people.

The winning candidate must have support of more than half of the voters. If this does not happen, top two go to the second round of elections, organised two weeks later.

All the elections in Poland are always held on Sunday, probably to allow largest amount of people to vote, since usually they are not busy with work. Also voting stations take some rooms at schools and other public institutions, so during working days, some of these institutions might just become paralysed. Is it right approach though? I have no idea. In Netherlands people vote on working days, voting stations require much less space.

"I have no idea why they don't vote online yet." ~T. H. Ilves Source: delfi.ee.

“I have no idea why they don’t vote online yet.” ~ probably wonders T. H. Ilves
Source: delfi.ee.

Who can become the President?

According to the Constitution, “Only a Polish citizen who, no later than the day of the elections, has attained 35 years of age and has a full electoral franchise in elections to the Sejm, may be elected President of the Republic. Any such candidature shall be supported by the signatures of at least 100,000 citizens having the right to vote in elections to the Sejm.”. Easy? So in simple words, the potential candidate must be a Polish citizen, not deprived of voting rights (e.g. due to mental illness), at least 35 years old and collect at least 100 thousand signatures of supporters, which must have voting rights for lower house of the parliament (we call it Sejm).

The President’s term lasts five years (the Polish parliament is elected every four years!). During that period he lives in the Presidential Palace which is the one I put as a featured picture. President can be elected only twice in his life, which makes it impossible for our politicians to make it longer in “Putin-style”. So far, only Aleksander Kwaśniewski managed to be elected twice (in 1995 and 2000), and he is also the only president of the Third Polish Republic elected without the second round in 2000.

 

It says: “I used to win in the first round before it was cool”. Source: facebook/Hipsterski maoizm.

It says: “I used to win in the first round before it was cool”.
Source: facebook/Hipsterski maoizm.

What are his/her powers?

Since the President is directly elected, he is usually supposed to have something more to do than representing the country in fancy institutions, like Council of Europe, United Nations, OECD, OSCE etc. Indeed our Constitution gives him/her some superhero features and I will focus on these most significant.

“I don’t want to be a president in his country. Just too much workload.”

“I don’t want to be a president in his country. Just too much workload.” ~ probably thinks J. Gauck
Source: politik-digital.de.

Apart from some regular things, like leading the army, giving orders (I mean distictions, not executive orders), “appointing and recalling the plenipotentiary representatives of the Republic of Poland to other states and to international organizations” and “receiving the Letters of Credence and recalling of diplomatic representatives of other states and international organizations accredited to him” (you do not know what does it mean? do not worry, these are just things all heads of state usually do), the main superpower of Poland’s president is veto power.

President is able to veto bills voted by parliament, by just not signing it within 21 days since voting and does not need to explain his decision to anyone. The veto can be turned down “by the Sejm by a three-fifths majority vote in the presence of at least half of the statutory number of Deputies”, which means 3/5 majority vote with at least half of the all members of Sejm present during the voting. In multipartisan system, like one we have in Poland, this seems very unlikely to gather such majority, so presidential veto is quite strong instrument. Veto power also applies to international agreements ratified by the parliament.

If (s)he is unsure whether the bill violates the Constitution, (s)he can also ask Constitution Court for help. If the Court says it is fine, President cannot turn the bill down anymore. Constitution Court needs some time to make its mind, so it happened that president used this power just to delay implementing laws for even months, infuriating government, MPs, public and generally…

Everyone!

Another constitutional right given to President is right to give Polish citizenship. Another laws define who and how can be naturalised as Polish citizen, however President is fully able to override this and give Polish passport to anyone (s)he likes or decline giving it to a foreigner (s)he does not like, without giving any reason. This is not a thing that happens often, but some football or table tennis players enjoyed the express way of acquiring Polish nationality after proper lobbying from sport federations.

Did President just give me a reason to start cheering for our national female team in table tennis? If you do not know how to use Google’s image search, I will tell you: her name is Qian Li.

Did President just give me a reason to start cheering for our national female team in table tennis?
If you do not know how to use Google’s image search, I will tell you: her name is Qian Li and she is a Polish citizen.
Source: info.sport.pl.

It is important to remember that each new citizen is a new voter as well. It is hard to change the election results significantly by just giving citizenship to new people, if the population is already 38 million, but who knows what will happen once it shrinks due to aging society? What if naturalised citizens’ fertility rate will be higher than native Poles? It might still affect the political scene in the coming decades.

Other, not that unusual though, power is pardon. Constitution limits it however to everyone except those sentenced by Tribunal of State. This means: You are in prison for (state) treason? No mercy!

President obviously can make use of pardons to implement his domestic policies. Imagine that President of the Republic supports legalisation of marijuana, so why would (s)he not release all pot criminals from prisons?

Also, I almost forgot: insulting President in public is forbidden. Why (s)he gets more legal protection against insulting than other citizens? I have no idea…

Wrap-up: Is there a point in being a President?

I showed that being a President of Poland gives much more rights than secured income, car and bodyguard for lifetime (however these benefits are not resulting from the Constitution) but actual power to shape the policy of the country by directly interacting with legislature’s decisions using constitutional powers.

There are also other rights given to the President, however they are either not written in the Constitution, but defined in regular bills, or Constitution delegates other officials to limit them. Some of them include awarding the professor’s title to scientists filtered out by Polish Academy of Sciences, promoting soldiers chosen by Ministry of Defence, etc. In mentioned cases President has also right to reject these nominations.

This shows that President is an important person in the state and this is why there are always many politicians trying to run for this office. Even not mainstream parties try to push their candidate. These powers also might explain the point in electing him or her in direct, common elections, rather than being elected by the parliament, as it is done in many countries. The authors of the 1997 Constitution apparently see the head of state as independent supervisor of other sources of power.

Governmental power, not electricity.

Governmental power, not electricity.

P.S.: If you want to check other rights Poland’s Constitution gives to the President, you can look it up here.