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Electoral Soap Opera: Poles Remain in the Dark about Presidential Election
12 May, 2020
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Presidential elections in Poland have been provisionally moved ot July, but this may change. The photo shows mayoral elections taking place in the town of Aleksandrów Kujawski in northern Poland. April 26, 2020. Photo: EPA-EFE/TYTUS ZMIJEWSKI

The first round of Polish presidential elections was to place on May 10. But it never happened. The coronavirus pandemic has led to the postponement of elections in most countries around the world, but the governing Law and Justice party has kept Poles in the dark as to when and how they will be able to elect their leader. The situation has long ventured outside the bounds of law, and as users of social networks say, common sense as well.

The website of the Polish Central Election Commission as of May 9 was still featuring the clock counting down the time before the start of voting in the presidential election. But everyone -- the CEC, candidates and voters knew that the vote would not go ahead. "Schroedinger's election: they both exist, and doesn’t," Polish journalists joked on the “Polityka Insight” podcast.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing lockdown that began in Poland on March 13, the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) changed its mind several times: whether to postpone the vote or to settle for hasty elections by mail. This issue almost led to the collapse of the ruling coalition, and the fate of Polish democracy was ultimately decided by...a grand total of two MPs. Now Poland is preparing to elect a president in July. But that’s not in the bag either.

A very dull campaign

When the Speaker of the Sejm, Elżbieta Witek, issued a resolution on February 5 to hold the first round of the presidential election on May 10, signs pointed to a very dull campaign. Polls showed that incumbent President Andrzej Duda would easily win more than 40% of the vote in the first round and would defeat any opponent in the second. PiS, which in the spring of 2019 won the elections to the European Parliament, and in the fall to the Sejm were certain of another triumph.

Both the economic situation -- the growth of the average salary from 950 to 1,200 euros ($1,030-1,301) and 5% unemployment -- and weak opposition candidates contributed to the ruling party's likely success. Polish President Andrzej Duda in Krakow, Poland, April 10, 2020. Photo: EPA-EFE / LUKASZ GAGULSKI

The liberal opposition in this race is represented by Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska from the Civic Platform (PO). The great-granddaughter of the president and prime minister of interwar Poland makes it no secret that her main electorate are representatives of the country's financial and intellectual elite, which PiS voters "cannot attain."

Two more candidates run from the center-right platform -- agrarian leader Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz and journalist Szymon Hołownia, who is proud of his non-partisanship and likes to compare himself with Emmanuel Macron and Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Michał Potocki, a journalist with Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, calls the two the most interesting part of the campaign:

"In the event of reaching the second round, both Hołownia and Kosiniak-Kamysz can claim the creation of a serious center-right party that will displace the PO from this niche. The platform will die like it appeared: Andrzej Olekhovsky got the second result in the 2000 presidential election after Aleksander Kwaśniewski. Together with Donald Tusk, they finally buried the old liberal Freedom Union party and created the Platform we know, which ruled the country in 2007-2015."

Both the left and the far-right also registered their candidates: the former mayor of Slupsk and openly gay Robert Biedroń, and Krzysztof Bosak respectively. The remaining candidates have up to 1% of support.

READ MORE: How Poland's Polarization Led to the Murder of Gdansk Mayor

Compared to the 2015 elections, there was virtually no foreign policy in this campaign. Candidates have focused on hot topics in recent months: judicial reform, social protection, relations with the European Union. At the same time, none of the opposition candidates managed to create a holistic, convincing narrative that would show a real alternative to PiS policy, and not just a reaction to it. As a result, Kidawa-Błońska's rating dropped from 20 to 15% at the end of March, and the rest did not rise above 10%. It all came down to the fact that Duda would win in the first round.

Independent candidate for the presidency of Poland, journalist Szymon Hołownia during a press conference on the situation with the coronavirus, Warsaw, Poland, April 6, 2020. Photo: EPA-EFE / RADEK PIETRUSZKA

Not secret, not general, not free

The situation changed in mid-March, when a wave of the COVID-19 pandemic hit Poland. The CEC was registering candidates, they were collecting signatures, but in the first weeks of the lockdown, opposition politicians started insisting that the election should be postponed. With isolation and a ban on public gatherings, it was impossible to campaign, especially since the news only covered the coronavirus and the actions of President Duda's government in connection with the epidemic. The latter was skeptical about the idea of ​​postponing the vote -- at the turn of March and April, his rating exceeded 50%.

It would have been quite easy to legally postpone the election date by imposing a state of emergency or a state of food catastrophe in the country. The epidemic and the economic slowdown provided an objective reason. In both cases, voting in the election would be postponed to the 60th day after the expiration of one of these states. However, the economic crisis after the quarantine would increase the opposition's chances of winning, so the PiS, at the initiative of party leader Jarosław Kaczyński, chose a course of confrontation by opting for election on May 10 at any cost.

The Sejm, where the PiS has a majority, first approved the possibility of holding postal voting for the elderly and those in quarantine, and then a law that allowed for full-fledged mail voting.

"PiS actively referred to foreign experience in this matter," says journalist Potocki. Indeed, in some American states, voting by mail is the only way to participate in elections. In Germany, about a third of voters usually vote by mail. But for Poland it is a great innovation! Such a possibility was previously provided for in the Polish legislation only for people with disabilities. In the 2019 elections, less than 0.001% of voters used it."

The Polish Sejm has approved the possibility of voting by mail for the elderly and those in quarantine, and then a law allowing full-fledged mail vote. The photo shows mailboxes in the village of Pędzewo in northern Poland, April 29, 2020. Photo: EPA-EFE / TYTUS ZMIJEWSKI

READ MORE: Judges From Across Europe Protest in Poland Against Controversial Judicial Reforms

"The Polish Constitutional Tribunal has ruled that suffrage can be changed no later than six months before the election. International experts are even talking about a year, and our changes were introduced a few weeks before the vote,” said Zosia Lutkiewicz, head of the Responsible Policy Foundation, election watchdog. 

“According to this law, it will be much more difficult for Poles to vote abroad. The homeless will not be able to vote at all. 30,000 postmen will have to serve 30,000,000 Poles with the right to vote. And since the ballots will not be handed over, they will only be thrown in the mailboxes, other people may have access to them. In such a situation, there is no question of a secret ballot."

Lutkiewicz is modeling the election under a new law: in Krakow, home to 600,000 eligible voters, the election commission will consist of 45 people. If at least half of the voters vote, one member of the commission will have 7,000 ballots in envelopes: "The count will take several weeks, and the commission will have to work at a stadium to comply with sanitary and logistical norms."

In order for the law to take effect, it must be approved by the second chamber of the Polish parliament, the Senat. Most senators are members of the opposition, so they decided to stall the process. But that did not stop the Ministry of State Assets, headed by PiS MP Jacek Sasin, from taking over some of the CEC's powers, and in particular ordering the printing of ballots for May 10 at a cost of $7 million. Some cities, such as Warsaw, Wroclaw, and Olsztyn, where opposition politicians are the mayors, have refused to form election commissions and send voter lists to the post office. Kidawa-Błońska began to call for a boycott of a vote organized in such a way. The idea gained influential supporters, but lowered the candidate's rating -- in May, less than 5% of Poles intended to vote for her.

Competitor of incumbent Polish President Andrzej Duda, candidate from the opposition Civic Platform party Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska during a debate in the Sejm, Warsaw, Poland, May 7, 2020. Photo: EPA-EFE / WOJCIECH OLKUSNIK

How two deputies decided everything

The Senat considered the law on May 5, and allegedly rejected it. To overcome its veto, the Sejm had to pass the law once again by a simple majority. PiS has done this many times, but this time there was a problem.

Formally, the PiS is one parliamentary faction that forms the government. In reality, it is a conglomeration of parties that remain loyal to their leaders. Thus, the leader of the Zhoda party, Jarosław Gowin, said in late April that he supported the "postal law" but not the May 10 elections. Gowin resigned as deputy prime minister and proposed a reform of the Constitution: as it will be difficult to hold full-fledged elections during the coronavirus, and the epidemic may return in the fall of 2020 and next spring, Duda's term should be extended for another two years, but he should be stripped of the right to run for re-election.

READ MORE: Poland’s Democracy Crisis, Explained

The idea was supported by some opinion leaders, including former president Kwaśniewski, but criticized by opposition candidates and the PiS. The former -- because they will not be able to use the disappointment of Poles with the actions of the government during the corona crisis. The latter -- because Kaczyński sees concessions and compromises as a sign of weakness. Gowin threatened that his 18 deputies would not help Kaczyński overcome the Senat's veto.

Televised presidential debates took place on May 6 in this atmosphere of uncertainty. Duda performed well, but independent experts consider Hołownia to be the winner -- he is now the most criticized in the pro-government media. 15 minutes after the debate, it emerged that Kaczyński and Gowin had reached an agreement: the election would take place on May 10, but the vote would not take place. That would be a reason for the Speaker of the Sejm to appeal to the Supreme Court. At the same time, new candidates will be able to register, and "old" ones will not have to re-collect voters' signatures. After signing the memorandum, the PiS faction overcame the Senat veto, and President Duda signed the "postal law".

Law and Justice party leader Jarosław Kaczyński applauds Polish Prime Minister during parliamentary debate in Warsaw, Poland, March 27, 2020. Photo: EPA-EFE / LESZEK SZYMANSKI

On the one hand, the agreement between Gowin and Kaczyński cleared the air. As the new campaign will last 60 days, voting may take place in mid-July. This term is good both for Duda -- his rating will not be eaten up by the economic crisis, and for the opposition -- it can regroup and still fight for at least two rounds.

On the other hand, its illegal nature is striking.

"This is not a constitutional coup, as some opposition commentators say, but all options for overcoming the election crisis, which are now on the table, are either more or less inconsistent with the law," said journalist Potocki.

"A few days before the election, two ordinary deputies just sat down and decided that there would be an election and no voting. This is not only a brutal violation of the Constitution, it is a dangerous precedent. In the future, any government whose rating falls before the election will be able to resort to such solutions," warns election observer Lutkiewicz. 

“It seems to me that the E.U. does not understand the whole situation. Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders said Poland had postponed the election, although in reality the election had taken place, but without voters. Brussels has breathed a sigh of relief, and they should be even more worried."

Experts are also outraged that Kaczyński and Gowin "predicted" how the speaker of the Sejm and the Supreme Court would behave. Especially since they have already tried to reconsider the understanding.

READ MORE: What Can We Expect From PiS’ Second Term in Power in Poland?

Several unofficial sources reported on May 9 that Kaczyński, at the urging of the PiS radical wing, wanted to withdraw from the agreement, call elections in late May or early June to prevent an increase in the opposition's rating. And although Gowin now playfully declares that compared to Polish politics, the series "House of Cards" is a lullaby for children, the tale instead seems more like, in the eyes of ordinary Poles, a soap opera -- it is unclear who is with whom, for how long, whether their favorite actors will be replaced. And most importantly they may be asking-- how many episodes this drama will last.

Zhoda Party leader Jarosław Gowin (second right) and Law and Justice Party leader Jarosław Kaczyński (right) during a parliamentary debate in Warsaw, Poland, March 27, 2020. Photo: EPA-EFE / LESZEK SZYMANSKI

A blow to democracy

Earlier last week, Freedom House published the annual “Nations in Transit” report. According to it, Poland has fallen out of the group of consolidated (full) democracies, which includes all E.U. countries except Hungary. This is an assessment of both the judicial reform of the PiS and the attack on freedom of speech and civil society. Earlier, in the “World Free Press Index”, Poland, which a few years ago was in a high 18th position, fell to 62nd place out of 180, next to Armenia and Niger.

The PiS’ game around the elections will only worsen Poland's position. Currently, the most likely scenario is a new presidential election on July 12 with mail voting. However, on May 11, there was information that voting might take place in a mixed scheme -- some Poles will vote by mail, some -- traditionally at polling stations, because even pro-government media are starting to hint that a full-fledged postal vote could only be held toward the end of the year.

Incumbent Duda need not be worried about his victory yet, but time is playing against him. Moreover, if new candidates are registered, former Polish Prime Minister and European Council President Donald Tusk, an experienced politician who led the country during the 2008 crisis, could join the campaign.

Liberal journalists aren’t sparing comparisons of Polish politics to the situation in Russia and Belarus, where those governments have been obstructing their citizen’s wills for decades. Lutkiewicz believes that such metaphors are excessive, although Poles do have things to worry about: “I work with NGOs from Russia and the Eastern Partnership countries, and I understand that although Poland is moving in the wrong direction, we still have more civil rights and freedoms than Russians and Belarusians. And we must use these rights and freedoms to demand that the government abide by the Constitution. We may have lost confidence in the election and the state in recent weeks, but we are not threatened by the prospect that the outcome of the election is known in advance. I understand those who are now calling for a boycott, but I myself prefer to take part in the elections. It is better to throw in a blank ballot than not to go to the polls."

/Written by Olena Babakova

/Translated by Hromadske International