Ex-head of electoral commission calls for boycott of Polish government’s referendum

The former head of Poland’s electoral commission has announced that he will boycott the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party’s planned referendum and has offered advice to the public on how they can legally avoid participating while still voting in parliamentary elections that are due to take place at the same time.

The country’s second-largest opposition group has also announced a boycott of the referendum, which critics say is designed to boost turnout in support of the government on election day. PiS, however, accuses them of being anti-democratic and scared of the voice of “ordinary Poles”.

“I would be ashamed to take part in this referendum,” Wojciech Hermeliński, who served as head of the electoral commission from 2014-19 and is also a former constitutional court judge, told broadcaster TVN. “I wouldn’t even call it a referendum,” he added.

– Nie pobiorę karty referendalnej. Pytania są porażające, ich poziom jest taki, że wstydziłbym się głosować w tym referendum – powiedział w #JedenNaJeden u @AgataAdamek były przewodniczący Państwowej Komisji Wyborczej Wojciech Hermeliński.

👉 https://t.co/sFqu3bj9Qv pic.twitter.com/pKyNmyHWwT

— tvn24 (@tvn24) August 14, 2023

As evidence, Hermeliński pointed to the wording of the four planned questions that PiS unveiled day-by-day between last Friday and Monday this week. “The questions are shocking…primitive, crude,” he claimed.

Among the questions is: “Do you support the reception of thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa, in accordance with the forced relocation mechanism imposed by the European bureaucracy?”

Critics say that all four questions contain emotive, leading language designed to elicit a certain response. They also note that their content is misleading and asks about issues that are already settled.

The ruling party wants to make this year’s election a referendum on opposition leader @donaldtusk.

While old foes Kaczyński and Tusk are relishing their renewed battle, it may benefit neither and instead further fuel the recent rise of the far right https://t.co/CTdwyPVkKu

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) August 16, 2023

Hermeliński told TVN that, when attending polling stations on the day of the election and referendum, voters can refuse to take the ballot paper for the referendum while still accepting those for the elections to the Sejm and Senate, the two houses of parliament.

It is important to do this, he says, because under Polish law referendum results are only valid if at least 50% of eligible voters take part. Even taking the voting card and not filling it in would be counted as participation, he notes.

The former judge added that, if someone does take the card but wants to invalidate it, they can “completely tear it” before putting it in the ballot box.

Hermeliński acknowledged that it is a criminal offence, punishable by up to two years in prison, to destroy election or referendum documents. But he argued that the law does allow for the tearing of referendum ballot papers.

❓🧵 [WĄTEK] Jak skutecznie zbojkotować #pseudoreferendum 15 października?

❌ Nie możemy podrzeć karty do głosowania – to przestępstwo z art. 248 pkt 3 k.k. (zniszczenie dokumentu referendalnego). Za to skazywały już sądy (zob. wyrok SR w Giżycku z 23 II 2021 r., II K 362/20) ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/BPd6XMe5P3

— Patryk Wachowiec (@Patryk_1234567) August 12, 2023

However, some other legal experts have warned that anyone tearing up ballot papers could face prosecution and say that those wishing to boycott the referendum can only do so by refusing to take the document in the first place.

State broadcaster TVP, which is under the effective control of PiS, also suggested that Hermeliński is encouraging the public to break the law by destroying ballot papers.

In a statement issued today, the current head of the electoral commission, Sylwester Marciniak, confirmed that voters can choose not to take the referendum ballot paper. However, he added that “anyone who destroys a ballot paper is liable to imprisonment for up to two years”.

Bojkot referendum? Bojkot ma sprawić, że referendum nie będzie wiążące. Jeżeli opozycja ogłosi bojkot oznacza to, że chce:
-prywatyzowac spółki państwowe
-podwyższyc wiek emerytalny
-zgodzić sie na relokację migrantow
-rozebrać zaporę na granicy z BL

— Maciej Wąsik 🇵🇱 (@WasikMaciej) August 14, 2023

Meanwhile, The Left (Lewica), the second-largest opposition party in parliament, has announced that it also encourages people to boycott the referendum. One of its MPs, Tomasz Trela, said that the referendum is simply a way for PiS to “illegally finance its election campaign”, reports the Polish Press Agency (PAP).

Election campaign financing by political parties is subject to many restrictions and is closely scrutinised by the electoral commission. However, a referendum campaign can be financed not only by political parties but also by non-governmental organisations.

The other main opposition parties have also expressed opposition to the referendum but have not yet taken a position on whether to boycott it. They are almost certain, however, not to vote for calling the referendum when the issue comes before parliament.

The ruling party has submitted a bill that would allow it to hold a referendum on the EU’s migration pact on the same day as elections this autumn.

It argues this would be more cost effective. But opponents accuse it of wanting to mobilise its voters https://t.co/U4bD3DP1NI

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) July 3, 2023

Yesterday, the government submitted a motion to the Sejm for the referendum to be held on 15 October, the same day as the parliamentary elections. It says that it wants “ordinary Poles to have the decisive voice” on important issues.

Today the PiS majority in the Sejm also pushed through legislation that will allow the referendum to be held on election day, overturning an attempt by the opposition-controlled Senate to have it thrown out. The bill now passes President Andrzej Duda, a PiS ally, who can sign it into law or veto it.

Notes from Poland is run by a small editorial team and published by an independent, non-profit foundation that is funded through donations from our readers. We cannot do what we do without your support.

Main image credit: Slawomir Kaminski / Agencja Gazeta

Daniel Tilles is editor-in-chief of Notes from Poland. He has written on Polish affairs for a wide range of publications, including Foreign PolicyPOLITICO EuropeEUobserver and Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.

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