The fundamental principles of the electoral law, traditionally referred to as the electoral adjectives, are set forth in the Constitution of the Republic. Elections of deputies to the Sejm are universal – the right of suffrage is vested in all adult citizens of the country, irrespective of their origin, gender, wealth, etc.; equal – everyone may vote only once and cast only one vote, and each vote has equal importance; direct –ballots are cast for the person who is to be elected (and not e.g. for electors); proportional – the voter votes mainly for political parties, and the individual seats in the house are distributed in proportion to the support given to each of the parties by voters; secret – which means strict observance of the principle of anonymous voting.
Every 4 years, 460 deputies are elected to the Sejm. The terms of office of the Sejm and the Senate commence at the date the Sejm meets for its first sitting. Elections to the Sejm and the Senate are ordered by the President of the Republic no later than 90 days before the expiry of the term of office of both houses, to be held on a non-working day falling within the 30-day period before the expiry of the term of office of the Sejm and the Senate. Whenever the term of office of the Sejm is shortened, in the cases provided for in the Constitution, e.g. in consequence of the self-dissolution of the Sejm, the President simultaneously orders elections to the Sejm and the Senate no later than 45 days after the day on which the term of office was ordered to be shortened. In such an event, early elections are held.
In accordance with the Constitution, electoral franchise, i.e. the right to elect deputies is vested in Polish citizens who have attained the age of 18 no later than the day of the vote. However, the right is not available to persons who have been incapacitated or whose public rights or the right to vote have been revoked by a judgment which has the force of res judicata.
Eligibility or the right to run for the Sejm is vested in Polish citizens who have attained the age of 21 no later than the day of the election.
The detailed rules and method of organizing elections as well as the issues of election campaign financing are set forth in the electoral statutes.
Special bodies are set up to manage elections, which have a hierarchical three-tier structure. The first one is the National Electoral Office, as a supervisory and organizational authority operating on a standing basis. Subsequently district offices are established for specific elections, which register lists of candidates; they are responsible for elections at district level and obtain their results. The lowest level is that of the local electoral office staffed by voters appointed by municipality bodies; their main responsibility is to hold direct voting at the local level and count the results. The determination of election results is a complicated process, as it requires voting results to be aggregated and it is necessary to establish which electoral committees passed the election threshold applicable to the distribution of mandates, and then to distribute mandates on a proportional basis. Upon completion of that work, the National Electoral Office announces the results of elections to the Sejm and promulgates them in the Journal of Laws. The validity of elections is ascertained by the Supreme Court, which is also the competent body for the examination of any electoral protests.
Work at the Sejm
As part of their main activities, deputies participate in sittings of the Sejm, which are held in what are called “sitting weeks”. It is the deputy’s right as well as duty under the Act on the Exercise of the mandate of deputy and senator and the Standing Orders of the Sejm. At a sitting, the deputy may take part in a discussion on his/her behalf or on behalf of a deputies’ club or group, presenting its position. The deputy may act as a representative of the movers of a deputies’ or committee’s bill, presenting, among other things, the bill’s assumptions or reasons for the proposed arrangements. The deputy may also act as a committee rapporteur, reporting on a committee’s work. The deputy may be appointed as a secretary of the Sejm, whose responsibility is to support the Marshal of the Sejm in conducting the debates. The deputy’s attendance of a sitting of the Sejm is confirmed by signature on the attendance list, which is available on each sitting day for two hours from the commencement of deliberations, and through participation in votings confirmed by printouts. The Marshal of the Sejm will order that a deputy’s remuneration and parliamentary per diem allowances be reduced for each day of unexcused absence or failure to participate in more than 1/5 of votes on a given day.
In addition to participating in plenary debates, deputies also work in committees. Committee sittings are held both during the plenary debate and in weeks in which no sittings of the Sejm are held. Participation in the work of the Sejm committees is the deputy’s basic duty, and an unexcused absence from committee sittings is also subject to a financial penalty.
In the course of their work in the Sejm, deputies use the collections of the Sejm Library and the support of the Sejm Research Bureau, which prepares expert reports, opinions and information at their request.
As part of their parliamentary work, deputies may take individual scrutiny measures. The individual forms of parliamentary scrutiny include parliamentary interpellations and questions as well as questions on current matters. Deputies may address parliamentary interpellations and questions in writing to any member of the Council of Ministers. The addressee is required to provide a written answer within 21 days of their receipt. A parliamentary interpellation concerns matters of a fundamental nature and relates to issues of state policy. A parliamentary question refers to matters of an individual nature, concerning internal and external policy pursued by the Council of Ministers and public tasks performed by the government administration. Questions on current issues are asked orally at each sitting of the Sejm and relate to the current activities of the different members of the Council of Ministers. Questions on current issues require direct answers.
Deputies also have the right of parliamentary intervention with a government or local government body, a state-owned establishment or enterprise or with non-public business undertakings in order to arrange matters of interest to the region’s inhabitants or be informed about progress of their consideration.
During the Sejm’s sittings, deputies meet at the meetings of their clubs or groups in order to work out a common position for a given political group when voting and working at the Sejm. A sitting week is a time when deputies hold many meetings at the Sejm with parliamentarians from other countries (cooperation within bilateral groups), guests from all around the world, representatives of science, culture, etc. Besides, deputies co-organize and participate in special meetings, exhibitions, conferences, seminars and presentations devoted to issues considered important for the state and the public. In the Sejm, they also receive voters from their constituencies, who have come to visit them and tour the Sejm.
Work in a constituency
The deputy’s activity in a constituency involves mainly his/her work at the constituency office. The deputy may set up one constituency office, but may also, which is quite often the case, have several branches of his/her office in different localities. An office may also be shared with several other deputies. Irrespective of the number of offices, the deputy receives a fixed monthly amount from the Chancellery of the Sejm for their maintenance, and must accurately account for the expenses by providing appropriate bills. The deputy may spend the money received e.g. on remuneration for his/her employees, rent and other current charges, as well as translations or expert reports.
The constituency office is a place intended mainly for voters to directly contact the deputy as part of the so-called constituency duties and for the office employees to receive clients. In the course of such meetings, the deputy receives voters’ opinions, demands and proposals concerning e.g. legislative changes and the social and political situation, provides – to a limited extent – advice on legal and administrative issues, and tries to arrange matters of importance to the population of the region, undertaking parliamentary interventions on voters’ behalf.
In exercising his/her mandate in the constituency, the deputy meets representatives of local authorities, social and charitable organizations. The deputy participates in different celebrations, e.g. marking national holidays or other events held by local communities and organizations.
It is worth adding that deputies often operate their own websites where they post up-to-date information on their activities, e.g. on meetings and initiatives. Their addresses can be found on the Sejm’s website at www.sejm.gov.pl.