Elections vs. political competition: The case of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth


In models of political economy, institutionalization of free and open elections is presented as infusing competition into a monopolized regime. Due to elections, representative democracies are thought to reflect the will of the majority as opposed to the will of the elites. I challenge the idea that elections are a necessary condition of a well-functioning democratic system. In the liberal system of nobles’ democracy in the Kingdom in Poland, noble masses were able to shape political outcomes despite the absence of elections. In fact, it was the adoption of free royal elections in 1573 that undermined the democratic regime and contributed to the demise of the country. I argue that nobles’ democracy emerged from competition between the king and the regional rulers for the loyalty of nobles and that the system collapsed when royal elections disincentivized kings from seeking the nobles’ support.

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  1. 1.

    Biologist believe that degeneracy contributes to the robustness of biological traits while Wagner (2006) shows that the concept is equally applicable to the robustness of political systems

  2. 2.

    The early modern period in the history of East Central Europe might be unfamiliar to some of the readers. I provide short descriptions of the relevant events throughout the paper and readers interested in the subject can learn more by consulting the vast collection of historical monographs available in English (Zamoyski 1993; Fedorowicz et al. 1982; Davies 2005; Stone 2001; Jędruch 1982).

  3. 3.

    Nobles (szlachta) designates a formalized, hereditary, social group who is obliged to military service (levée en masse) in exchange for political rights.

  4. 4.

    Nobles gathered at the popular assembly (Sejmik) did not vote. Rather, bargaining and policy reformulations were used to reach a consensus

  5. 5.

    The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth—at the time of its existence largest and most populous state in Europe—was established in1569 through the Union of Lublin, which brought together the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In discussing the events that occurred prior to 1569, I focus primarily on the history of the Kingdom of Poland.

  6. 6.

    Also known as magnates. Historians describe them as: “[…] great lords, holders of the highest position in the state, owners of substantial landed estates, possessors of considerable wealth” (Wyczański 1982).

  7. 7.

    As explained by Wagner and Yazigi (2013), “Different environments of competition will select for different qualities possessed by the competitors. What particular qualities bring success in a particular environment of competition is a substantive matter that can’t be addressed by recourse to the generic form of competition alone.”

  8. 8.

    For a seminal work on the challenge of succession see Tullock (1987)

  9. 9.

    After the death of Louis I of Hungary, his wife selected their youngest daughter for the Polish throne, a 9-year-old girl—Jadwiga. Polish lords lobbied heavily for Jadwiga to marry the Lithuanian duke, Jogaila. The marriage established the personal union between Poland and Lithuania. Jogaila was elected as the Polish king in 1386 in Lublin at the popular gathering of all nobility. It was the first time that the middle nobility attended the national gathering of the high-ranking nobles and officials. The election of Jogaila gave way to the rule of the Jagiellonian dynasty over the vast territory of East Central Europe. However, given that it was the election of the person and not of the dynasty, each new king was required to obtain the explicit consent of the nobility before being sworn-in.

  10. 10.

    Jogaila became the Polish king through marriage to Queen Jadwiga (daughter of Louis I of Hungary). The couple never had any sons but after Jadwiga died, Jogaila had sons with his new wife. The lords challenged the legitimacy of passing on the crown to one of them, which meant that succession would again need to be secured through a privilege.

  11. 11.

    Ernest Habsburg, son of Maximilian II, was one of the key candidates in the first election. The Habsburgs spent years prior to the death of the last Jagiellon securing the support of the Polish and Lithuanian elites in preparation to capture the upcoming vacancy. By the time of the election, the majority of the magnates were ready to back the Habsburgs. However, many were frightened by the absolutist tendencies and the Catholic devotion of the Habsburgs. The anti-Habsburg opposition, primarily the representatives of the middle nobility and some Protestant magnates, had no strong or obvious candidate. Faced with the lack of an appropriate candidate, the opposition decided to go for the lesser evil and backed Henry of Valois, the brother of the French king.

  12. 12.

    It was a response to the foreign policy of Sigismund III Vasa, whose political ambition was to regain the Swedish crown


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Correspondence to Marta Podemska-Mikluch.

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Podemska-Mikluch, M. Elections vs. political competition: The case of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Rev Austrian Econ 28, 167–178 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11138-014-0266-8

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  • Degeneracy
  • Democracy
  • Institutional competition
  • Kingdom of Poland
  • Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
  • Royal elections

JEL Classification

  • B25
  • B53
  • D85
  • N43
  • P16