Earlier this month, Polish president Andrzej Duda once again pushed his idea of writing a new constitution and holding a referendum to consult the population on the most important details. Although 10 & 11 November 2018 (centenary of the declaration of the Second Polish Republic) has already been announced as a potential date and Duda has said that the referendum would include ten questions, neither the content of these questions nor his exact strategic motivation for pursuing this idea are known. Furthermore, the PiS government seems to have its own plans for constitutional reform that may clash with the president’s initiative.
Poland has one of the more complicated recent constitutional histories in comparison with other countries. Following the roundtable negotiations in 1989, the old Communist constitution was first amended in two steps (among others by creating the office of a president and laying the foundations for the first semi-democratic elections). After the drafting of a new constitution was stalled by parliamentary fragmentation and political polarisation, politicians agreed on the so-called “Small Constitution” in 1992 that set out the relations between the major institutions, yet was far from a full-fledged constitutional document. It was only in 1997 that Poland received a full new constitution that lived up to the name. Since then, there have been no major amendments that would have substantively affected the working of the political system.
The idea of a new constitution is nothing new among politicians of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party to which Duda belongs as well. Already in 2005, when the party campaigned on the promise of building a “4th Republic”, a new constitution was proposed but due to the lack of a constitutional majority and fragility of the government this idea was never put into practice. Given the great number of changes to the political and legal system introduced by PiS since they returned to power in late 2015 and the fact that some of these were thwarted by their incompatibility with the current constitution, it is not surprising that this idea has been reactivated. A new constitution (or major changes) would help to both legalise and legitimise the government’s controversial reforms and take wind out of the sails of its critics. Last, both in 2005 and now, the 1997 constitution has been denounced as being the work of “post-communists”, meaning that it was drafted by the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) as the successor to the Communist party (who PiS, having originated from the Solidarity movement, naturally oppose). Thus, it is relatively clear why PiS politicians want a new constitution. However, it is not entirely clear why the president (not the government) would push this idea. While there are several potential explanations, they are not all mutually exclusive and may only together paint the full picture.
Referenda (or the promise thereof) are a staple in the populist toolbox of political leaders in Europe and beyond. Thus, Duda may simply be preparing for his re-election campaign in early/mid-2020 and use his activism to gain greater supporter among the electorate. By promising a range of 10 questions, this approach differs from that of the government, which has hitherto introduced all changes without consulting the public and rather justified its moves ex-post. Duda may also try to save the position of the presidency within the Polish institutional structure (it has been rumoured that at least one referendum question will concern this issue). The president will be keen to keep the powers of his office, whereas the government is allegedly planning a greater concentration of power in the hands of the Prime Minister (similar to the German system) after consulting with a number constitutional lawyers and academics. Nevertheless, such plans were already mooted under the governments of Donald Tusk (2007-2014) but eventually dropped due to a lack of support among MPs and the public.
The referendum could also be a way for presidency and government to test out public attitudes towards changes without endangering the re-election of the government next year or merely. However, it is difficult to ascertain to what degree they coordinate their actions. Although it is clear that president and government generally agree on the direction of further political reforms, there have been a number of public conflicts that may or may not be genuine.
Irrespective of the fact that using the procedures of a constitution that is portrayed as illegitimate to legitimise a new document is bizarre, president Duda now has to send a request to the Senate (second chamber) and ask for the referendum to be scheduled. The speaker of the Senate and the president’s plenipotentiary for the referendum have already met several times, but it appears that more negotiations need to be completed before the actual request is made. Yet even then it is difficult to predict whether a majority of the public would support any changes to the current constitution. Although the PiS government continues to be relatively popular and the president’s plenipotentiary claims that 80% of Poles want a constitutional referendum, Poles are not particularly keen on politically motivated referenda and may simply not turn up at the ballot box. The last referendum – held on request of then president Komorowski in an attempt to thwart a second-round victory in the presidential elections by Andrzej Duda – concerned the electoral system, political party financing and tax law, but turnout was just 7.8%.