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Will Voter Turnout for the European Parliament Elections Soar Again in Poland?

POLITICSWill Voter Turnout for the European Parliament Elections Soar Again in Poland?

Poland is one of the most polarized countries in Europe, and this phenomenon has been intensifying in recent years. The high level of polarization in the political scene and society translates into increasing voter turnout in parliamentary elections. This is evidenced by the analysis of the 2023 Polish General Election Study (PGSW), presented on May 21 during a joint conference by SWPS University and Ipsos. Will this also be the case in the upcoming European Parliament elections?

The election marathon is ongoing. In recent months, parliamentary elections (October 2023) and local elections (April 2024) have taken place. On June 9, we will vote for the European Parliament, and next year – for the President of Poland. During this intense period, it is worth examining the findings of the 2023 Polish General Election Study (PGSW). These findings cover Polish elections, voter preferences, and behaviors. We particularly focus on polarization in our country, its impact on voter turnout, and voting patterns on October 15, 2023 (including strategic and tactical voting).

The Greater the Polarization, the Higher the Turnout

In the last parliamentary elections, turnout reached a remarkable 74.4%, the highest in any election in the Third Polish Republic. Even in the 1989 elections, fewer eligible voters went to the polls – 62.7%. Experts discussed the reasons for this on May 21 during the SWPS University and Ipsos conference, analyzing the 2023 PGSW findings.

The 2023 parliamentary elections in Poland showed that increased political polarization can significantly raise voter turnout. When citizens perceive the political stakes as high, they are more motivated to participate in elections to defend their values and interests against opposing groups or factions, explains Prof. Mikołaj Cześnik, a political scientist and Director of the Institute of Social Sciences at SWPS University, and the project leader of the 2023 Polish General Election Study. He adds that polarization in Poland has led to a clear identification and mobilization of social classes.

Political parties increasingly structure their programs around specific class interests, and voters recognize and respond to policies that directly affect their socio-economic status, says Prof. Mikołaj Cześnik. PGSW analyses show that polarization of the political scene, as well as society, is a significant element of public life not only in Poland. However, data from 2023 indicate that its level in our country is the second highest in Europe, surpassed only by Hungary, with Slovakia close behind us. Conversely, the lowest level of polarization among the surveyed European countries is found in Denmark.

Strategic Voting in 2023

PGSW researchers analyzed the flows of support between parties in the last parliamentary elections. It turns out that over one-third of voters chose to vote for a party other than the one they ideologically identified with the most. The most ideologically consistent voters were those of PiS (78%) and New Left (67%). In contrast, less than half of the votes for the Civic Coalition came from those who saw it as the closest ideological match.

Positive sentiment towards PiS was almost fully leveraged by the party, translating into votes. Support flows to Jarosław Kaczyński’s party were also minimal. The Civic Coalition benefited the most from strategic voter decisions, at the expense of the New Left and the Third Way.

Contrary to popular belief, the Third Way and, to a lesser extent, the New Left, have a much larger potential electorate than commonly thought. Claims that the support of other factions ensured a good result for the Third Way, and thus the coalition’s victory on October 15 and the removal of PiS from power, are false. Our analyses show it was the other way around: the flows from the Third Way and the New Left to the Civic Coalition contributed to the victory, emphasizes Prof. Mikołaj Cześnik.

Future Outlook

As noted by PGSW experts, a shift from traditional values to more pragmatic issues is noticeable in Polish politics. Economic problems and class interests are becoming increasingly central in political discourse, shifting focus from cultural or symbolic politics to more pragmatic issues. Increased polarization contributes to a more programmatic structuring of political competition. This structuring helps voters better understand the differences between parties, making their choices more informed and aligned with their personal and class interests, concludes Prof. Mikołaj Cześnik. PGSW research suggests that with further polarization, we can expect even higher voter engagement and turnout in future elections.

Are European Elections as Attractive to Poles as Local Elections?

A study conducted by Ipsos showed that about 90% of Poles believe it is important who represents Poland in the European Parliament and that every vote counts in elections. 83% believe that participation in European Parliament elections is co-determining the future of the European Union.

Does this mean that on June 9, Poles will turn out en masse to vote? Is it as good as these statistics suggest? Or are these empty slogans that do not translate into real engagement? To better understand the situation, Ipsos examined the broader context of the European Parliament elections.

Although nearly 60% of Poles have a positive attitude towards the European Union, 45% feel that opinions about it have worsened over the past year. However, more than 70% still support the EU, and only 4% are unequivocally against it.

Regarding the European Parliament itself, only 23% of respondents believe that the decisions made there have a personal impact on them. One in three Poles cannot name a single MEP, and about 40%, when looking at the list of political groups in the European Parliament, do not recognize any of them. The European Parliament is thus distant not only physically but also mentally.

Despite this, when asked if they are personally interested in the European Parliament elections, 67% responded positively, although only 21% are strongly committed. Interest is more often expressed by EU enthusiasts and those knowledgeable about it. Among electorates, KO and PiS supporters stand out.

However, the campaign has not yet gained full momentum. Half of Poles feel that they are only somewhat informed (35% of respondents) or not informed at all (16%) about the upcoming elections. Young women (18-29) particularly stand out, with half admitting they know nothing about it – says Joanna Skrzyńska, Public Affairs Leader at Ipsos. – High awareness of the importance of elections and the belief that every vote counts do not necessarily translate into actual voter engagement. These are strong social norms but not always strictly followed. The low level of knowledge about the European Parliament, lack of significant interest, and limited access to election information suggest that unless the campaign accelerates and stirs greater emotions, the turnout on June 9 will be closer to that of local elections rather than the record high from the fall of 2023.

Polish Voter at the Polls

As in previous elections, an exit poll will be conducted for the June elections, which has been carried out by Ipsos since 2014. It is an extremely challenging study in terms of organization, logistics, and analysis, conducted on election day.

What is the secret to a well-executed exit poll? According to Paweł Predko, Operations Director at Ipsos, the success of the study is due to several factors such as the quality of the selected sample of polling stations, an experienced and trained team of nearly 2,000 people across the country, technological support, a good team of analysts, and excellent cooperation of the entire team on election day.

The exit poll study, due to its uniqueness and scale, provides a wealth of invaluable information. Only from this study do we know how different groups of Poles voted: men, women, people with specific education levels, or professional groups. Thanks to questions about previous voting behavior, such as voting in previous presidential and parliamentary elections, it is also possible to analyze voter flows, concludes Predko.

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