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Presidential Elections in Poland, in the Era of Covid-19

Presidential Elections in Poland, in the Era of Covid-19
 Roman Krakovsky
Historian, Lecturer at the University of Geneva

If the economic consequences of the Covid-19 crisis are at the forefront of the news, far less is being said about the challenges the pandemic poses to democracy. In Central and Eastern Europe, the signals were ominous well before the crisis. But the outbreak of the coronavirus has given several governments an opportunity to strengthen their power and push through legislation that undermined further democratic institutions. In Poland, it coincided with the presidential election. The mismanagement of the campaign and the vote revealed the ruling party’s ambitions to state capture and the weaknesses of the Polish conservative regime.

The imbroglio of the presidential election 

The Polish presidential election was initially scheduled on May 4 and 10, 2020. But the outbreak of the Covid-19 crisis changed the situation. The lockdown has shifted the campaign from on the ground activities to the media and the internet. The only candidate benefiting from the coronavirus crisis was the outgoing president Andrzej Duda (PiS). As leader of the nation’s fight against the virus, he occupied the news headlines. Since the public media are largely controlled by the PiS and Duda’s rivals had access only to online platforms, the situation put the president in a position of strength. Last but not least, the effective management of the coronavirus crisis has further strengthened his popularity.

However, it is expected that the lifting of lock-down that went into force on April 20 and the economic impact of the crisis could have an opposing effect. If the president Duda loses the election, it could weaken the ruling party PiS and expose some of its members to legal charges. From a simple formality, the election thus has transformed into a real challenge for Duda who is up for a new mandate. The government, therefore, performed a U-turn, announcing that the elections would go ahead on May 10 and 24. On April 6, about a month before the election, it introduced a bill to extend mail-in voting rights, since until then only Poles over the age of 75 and those unable to travel for medical reasons had the right to vote by post. The postal service (Poczta Polska) was tasked with delivering the ballots to all citizens, collecting and counting the votes. 

The EU and NGOs firmly criticized such arrangements, and the fact that the electoral laws were changed so close to elections. The Polish Supreme Court called the new electoral law unconstitutional because it implied starting the whole electoral campaign from scratch. According to the judges, the modification of the rules would "transform the election into a postal service for individuals" and Poczta Polska into an electoral body with no guarantee that the vote would be effectively counted.

On April 6, about a month before the election, the government introduced a bill to extend mail-in voting rights, since until then only Poles over the age of 75 and those unable to travel for medical reasons had the right to vote by post.

The postmen would become electoral agents and due to the social distancing and lock-down measures, there was no assurance that the ballots would be effectively delivered to citizens. The postbox would transform into a mobile ballot box but the law did not make it clear where and how the citizens could put the ballots into the mail boxes. The new law did not ensure either that the ballots would reach polling stations and there was no procedure in case the mail with the ballot got lost nor how the votes could be counted. Last but not least, Poles living abroad (and in majority anti-PiS) or blocked outside of the country due to the Covid-19 crisis were not certain to receive their ballots and to be able to deliver them to the counting centers on time. All in all, the access to the vote for all citizens would not be guaranteed and the universal character of the election would be compromised. The whole process of correspondence voting could be invalidated.

The weaknesses of such a rushed electoral reform did not stop the government from beginning to print mail-in electoral ballots. But it also created the dilemma for the opposition of whether to boycott the election and secure Duda an easy victory, offering the PiS leader another five years, or to fight in an election with no equal access to media and citizens and no guarantee of an equal and fair vote. 

Finally, the election was legally maintained on 10 May, but it did not take place: no one voted and no polling places were open. The electoral commission took note that the ballot was invalid (even if it had not even taken place) and the Sejm, Poland’s lower house of Parliament, rescheduled the election on June 28, mixing in-person vote at polling stations and postal vote.

The clock reset was met with relief in Brussels, since the lock-down measures were lifted and there’s a bigger chance that the election will be free. But the candidates will not benefit from an equal pre-electoral campaign, since only the incumbent president Duda was able to campaign across the country, while other candidates are limited to media and online presence.

Reasons to delay the vote 

There was, however, a legal way to delay the vote. The government could declare a state of natural catastrophe, which delays any election until 90 days after such state is revoked. For several reasons, it refused to take such a step. 

First, this election is critical for the ruling coalition. Last autumn, PiS won the presidential elections. But in order to implement their political agenda, it is extremely important that Andrzej Duda remains president for the second term. In Poland, the President is not the head of the government. But he has the power to veto. And even though the PiS holds the majority in the Parliament, it does not have the three-fifths majority that would allow it to overturn a presidential veto.

Since the next presidential elections are scheduled for 2023, an opposition president could block certain controversial reforms constraining the freedom of press or the power of the judiciary that the pro-PiS government would be willing to pass. Moreover, PiS has just a narrow majority of five deputies. Without the Presidency, PiS’s political agenda and reforms would be more difficult to implement. If the opposition held the Senate and the Presidency, the political system would be better balanced and the opposition could better play its role and challenge the government.

Last autumn, PiS won the presidential elections. But in order to implement their political agenda, it is extremely important that Andrzej Duda remains president for the second term. 

The vote came also at a very peculiar moment. When it comes to social spending as a share of GDP, Poland has been one of the less generous countries in Europe since the 1990s. But over the past few years, the government has developed a vast program of social benefits in order to secure the citizens’ support. These generous policies were easy to implement during the economic boom. But the Covid-19 and the forthcoming global economic crisis will certainly widen the state’s deficit and reduce the government’s flexibility. Moreover, millions of Poles have loans emitted in euros or Swiss francs, and a possible devaluation of zloty might increase their debt. The ongoing inflation is also expected to diminish the benefits of generous social programs while the unemployment will soar. Poland is heading towards the first economic crisis since the 1990s. Last but not least, with Brexit and the economic growth that the country experienced since the 2000s, Poland might become for the first time the net contributor to the EU budget while it has been its most important beneficiary since joining the EU in 2004. Adjusting to this new situation will certainly be difficult, and postponing the election too far might make the outcome much more uncertain for Duda, once the effects of the economic crisis will become more visible.

Political polarization 

One of the reasons why the presidential election in Poland has become so complicated stems from a deepening political polarization. Following the last presidential elections in 2019, the ruling party’s coalition narrowly controls the lower house, the Sejm, while the opposition narrowly controls the upper house, the Senate. But PiS (198 seats) does not govern alone and needs to take into account his partners within the coalition United Right (Zjednoczona Prawica): Porozumenie (18 seats) and Solidarna Polska (19 seats). The differences between the three political parties resurfaced during the Covid-19 crisis, as the leader of Porozumenie Jaroslaw Gowin publicly opposed the holding of the elections and proposed to delay the vote for two years. His proposition was ignored and he eventually resigned from his position as Minister in charge of science and higher education. But the coalition partners diverge also on many other international and domestic issues. Other members of Porozumenie also opposed the PiS proposal to maintain the election on 10 May and led to a strange election with no vote. There are as well tensions within the PiS between the moderate wing, represented by the Prime Minister Mateusz Mazowiecki, and a more radical one led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski et Zbigniew Ziobro. Last but not least, the de facto ruler of the country, Jaroslav Kaczynski, is technically only the PiS chairman and MP in the lower house of the Parliament, and the battle over his succession is rising.

The differences between the three political parties resurfaced during the Covid-19 crisis, as the leader of Porozumenie Jaroslaw Gowin publicly opposed the holding of the elections.

As the coalition is only at the beginning of the mandate (2019-2023), it is not excluded that the Sejm would be dissolved and new elections organized, rearranging the Polish political landscape. 

On the other hand, the opposition is also deeply divided and lacks a political vision and credible political alternative that would not be based only on an anti-PiS agenda but responds to the population's demands. 

The crisis of democracy 

The unwillingness to guarantee a fair campaign and equal vote for all, demonstrated the disdain of PiS for democratic principles. In that sense, the electoral crisis unveiled the decline of democracy that Poland has been experiencing over the past few years. In mid-April, Reporters Without Borders published its annual World Press Freedom Index. Poland, along with Hungary, recorded its fifth consecutive drop, falling from 22nd in 2013 to 62nd in 2020. This ranking is a historic low for Poland. The report states that "The government’s drive to subjugate the judicial system and a growing tendency to criminalize defamation are beginning to have an effect on the freedom of expression of independent media outlets. Some courts are now using article 212 of the criminal code, under which journalists can be sentenced to up to a year in prison for defamation, although the civil code offers citizens all the protections they need if they are defamed". 

In early May, Freedom House Nations in Transit Report degraded Poland from "consolidated democracy" to "semi-consolidated democracy", following the path previously taken by Hungary, Montenegro and Serbia in Central and Eastern Europe. For the first time, these three countries were demoted to the status of "hybrid regimes", a classification previously reserved in the region for Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Moldova and North Macedonia. 

In the long run, Poland, as other countries in the region, is taking an authoritarian turn. Although the situation in Poland is not comparable with Hungary, since the return to power, in 2015, PiS has undermined the independence of the judiciary, NGOs and the media, especially the public broadcaster, transforming it into the government’s mouthpiece and dividing the nation into friends and foes. It also tried to enforce new controversial laws reinforcing the conservative values and the control of the state on the individual, especially women and minorities. But until now, the Parliament always stepped back and followed decisions of the EU Justice Court. To be continued...


Copyrigth: Wojtek RADWANSKI / AFP

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