Postponement of the election date in Poland – once again?

Paulina Jabłońska

In November 2022, as the most paramount issue in Polish electoral law, one would mention the postponement of the date for local elections. Under the current electoral calendar, these elections are set to take place in autumn 2023. However, because parliamentary elections are also planned for this time, the ruling party believes that we should postpone the date of local elections. A question worth considering here is as follows: whether, and if so, how does this idea relate to the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on electoral law?

First, the entire background should be briefly outlined. A few months ago the idea of postponing municipal elections was raised in the public debate. According to the ruling party, the ‘date clash’ of parliamentary and local elections in autumn 2023 might cause several complications related to the organisation and financing of both elections. For this reason, representatives of the ruling party announced a draft of an act to resolve the difficulties entailed by the aforementioned ‘date clash’. The political proposal was based on the following assumption: since the date for parliamentary elections is determined by the Polish Constitution and the date for local elections is not, the date for municipal elections should be moved rather than the parliamentary one. This idea took hold to the extent that the statute on extending the term of office of local government bodies was adopted by the Sejm (the lower chamber of Polish parliament) on 29 September 2022. It allows for a one-time extension of the term of office of local government bodies until 30 April 2024. However, postponement of the local election date has not yet occurred; the legislative process is ongoing. On 27 October 2022 the Senate (the upper chamber of Polish parliament) adopted a resolution rejecting the act in its entirety, while on 4 November 2022 the Sejm expressed its opposition vis a vis this resolution by an absolute majority of votes in the presence of at least half the statutory number of Sejm members. So, currently we have to wait for the information about reaction of the President. Under the Polish Constitution, there are three possibilities i.e. the President 1) will sign the statute, 2) will return the statute to the Sejm (presidential veto), 3) will submit an application to the Constitutional Tribunal to examine the constitutionality of the statute.

It is also worth presenting to outline  briefly the legal and social background to the motion to change the date of local elections. The first remark regarding this should be that there is no time limit in the Constitution for local elections, as there is for parliamentary and presidential elections. The second remark should be about a constitutional standard concerning the principle of tenure and, as a consequence, the possibility of shortening or extending the term of office. According to the Case-Law of Polish Constitutional Tribunal (case K 17/98), modifying the term of office (in the form of shortening or extending) is possible with regard to local elections, but it cannot be done by parliament arbitrarily. The legislative branch is limited here by the principle of proportionality. This is why the current idea of changing local election term raises concerns. According to some experts, there is no sufficient justification for this change.

As a consequence, the problem of violation of constitutional principle of tenure appears here. It is worth emphasising that despite the fact that this is yet another Polish election (after the 2020 presidential elections) that may be postponed in violation of the Constitution, there has been no real reaction in society. The discussion has been going on for several months and perceptible protests from citizens are absent.

But why do we discuss it? What is the link between the postponement of local elections and the question of the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on the Polish electoral system? I would like to point out certain attitudes in the public sphere, both among politicians (members of parliament) and citizens. Unconstitutional postponement of the 2020 presidential elections established a dangerous precedent. Its acceptance, both on the legal (i.e. resolutions of the State Electoral Commission and the Supreme Court) and social level is the genesis of the current actions of the ruling party concerning local elections. The organisation of the presidential elections during the pandemic and what happened afterwards showed politicians that in Poland, public authorities can unlawfully postpone elections. So what can stop them from postponing elections once again?

In conclusion, I would like to make two remarks. The first is that I am afraid that the level of indifference to changing the rules of the game when the game is in progress in Poland is increasing. My second remark is that this can be proper example to demonstrate the negative long-term effects of COVID-19 not only on Polish electoral law, but also on the rule of law as a whole in Poland. 

November 2022


The views expressed above belong to the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Centre for Social Sciences.