Poland’s first ever all-postal presidential election is scheduled to be carried out in the next 7 days, amidst the worst global pandemic of our lifetimes. Governing bodies around the world have called to suspend the controversial elections that have been planned for May 10th, with many accusing incumbent President Andrzej Duda rushing to guarantee victory for him and his allied Law and Justice (PiS) party. Until recently the President would not have much of a challenge for reelection, however public opinion continues to drop amidst controversial decisions and constitutional amendments. The right-wing party fears support will erode as the lockdown hampers the Polish economy.
Ever since the Coronavirus epicentre first switched from China to Europe, the ban on public gatherings, political rallies and campaign events has to put a halt to most political campaigns on the continent. However, as the ruling Law and Justice party have backed the election to go ahead, most candidates including the President have only been able to use social media to advance their agendas. Nonetheless, not all candidates have equal access to votes, as President Duda continues to receive extensive coverage on media, and is being promoted on government friendly television shows. With this unfair advantage, coupled with rushing the elections, the President who was likely to win before the pandemic, has left candidates with an inability to contest freely and fairly.
The imbalance is similar to the U.S. President, Donald Trump, who also has been using his daily coronavirus briefings as a form of free publicity for his reelection campaign. Political analysts regard the election as a distraction from pandemic related issues the government is responsible for, such as rising unemployment and lagging financial relief. The Polish President and his allied party fear that support will erode as the lockdown strangles Polish economy. Yet, the President and his party’s support has already been dwindling. Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Gowin has resigned in protest of the election, along with controversial decisions that have harmed public opinion.
The ruling party has also sent another bill seeking to change the constitution by extending the President’s term from 5 to 7 years, giving Andrzej Duda another two years in office. As this option is largely opposed, they have now been debating whether they can push the election by a week or two to May 17th or May 23rd, as the all-postal legislation giving the go ahead still has not passed. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), both options that have been proposed have “serious concerns about free and fair elections and democratic rule of law.”
Legality of Elections – Fairness and Transparency
According to Piotr Buras from the European Council of Foreign Relations, there is no legal basis for the election. Buras wrote “the government decided to change the electoral law just a few weeks ago to introduce general postal voting. It is, in itself, unconstitutional – the basic law forbids any changes to electoral law later than 6 months before the election.”
Anna Materska-Sosnowska, a political scientist of Warsaw University holds a similar view. She states, “the justifications being used are unimaginable, as is the way that everything is being carried out. It violates every rule out there.” She adds, “if we have an institution that normally oversees the elections, you can’t just suddenly move that oversight to a new body, and through just an ordinary bill.” Materska-Sosnowska is referring to the newly formed government body led by the Ministry of State Assets, which is organizing these elections. The National Electoral Commission, a relatively independent agency which is normally responsible for elections in the country has been sidelined this year by the ruling Law and Justice party.
Therefore, with mounting Coronavirus related deaths coupled with limited time and an uncertainty whether the elections will take place, electoral preparations have been chaotic. Along with questions over the legality of this process, the scale of logistical planning this will require is massive. Human Rights Watch says there is almost an impossibility to ensure the whole process is free and transparent. In a statement they released, they the NGO asserts “Given the unprecedented nature of such full-scale mail in voting in Poland, and the extremely short time frame, it appears very unlikely – if not impossible – that the process will guarantee fairness and transparency.”
The All-Postal Plan – Health Concerns
Furthermore, the votes are to take place by mail in a country where there has been no tradition of doing so. Out of the 18 million voters in last year’s parliamentary elections, under 1600 people voted through mail. The plan consists of mail carriers hand delivering ballots to households, where residents then return them to specifically designated mailboxes. No one yet knows what the boxes will look like or where to locate them, additionally only half of Poland’s mail carriers are at work due to the lockdown.
Moreover, in order to get voters their ballots, the postal service needs voter information, which some local governments have not handed over, arguing the service has no legal right to obtain the files. There is also the problem that if the postal service does manage to obtain the information, many people do not live at the addresses they were once registered. Therefore, if the elections go ahead this month, many thousands of Polish voters around the world will not be able to participate.
The health and safety concerns surrounding the whole process is also evident, as health experts disagree on whether Poland has hit its coronavirus peak. Medical professionals have stated their fear and opposition to the elections due to the high risk of infection. There have been no safeguards regarding how to handle and disinfect envelopes along with the unknown amount and location of ballot boxes. They can be easily contaminated and the more the people go to drop their votes, the more likely the disease will spread.
Due to fears of contagion, few have signed up for electoral committees. After the election, these committees would normally group anywhere between 3-45 people at a time to count the vote, which will not be possible due to social distancing measures. Furthermore, coupled with health concerns, there is just not enough time to hold the elections how the government has planned. There would need to be vast sanitizing stations, temperature checks and various other safeguards that the government has not prepared for. Quartz news found in a poll conducted recently, only 28% of respondents say they will take part in voting in the all postal election.
Law and Justice Policies Controversy
Since coming to power in 2015, the Law and Justice party have been accused of undermining democratic institutions and attempting to change the constitution and democratic rule of law. Human rights groups as well as international institutions such as the United Nations and the European Union have expressed concerns regarding the government’s policies. A Polish law forcing judges into early retirement for example, was forbid by the E.U.
The government have been accused of attempting to fire the Supreme Court head, and to replace judges with party loyalists. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) stated the Polish law undermined judicial independence, compromised the independence of common courts and threatens the country’s democratic institutions. The ECJ has ordered the state to immediately suspend such activities. Along with violating E.U. law, Human Rights Watch has accused the government of “waging a war on independent journalists, civil society and human rights groups, activists, and others” who criticise the government’s policies.
Additionally, more outrage was caused by the government’s attempts to further regress abortion laws, which are currently only permitted in certain cases of fetal abnormalities, rape, incest, or threat to the mother’s health. New legislation being proposed by the government aims to prohibit abortions only due to fatal abnormalities or prevalence of an incurable disease. If the law passes, women who have miscarriages would be subject to criminal investigations and anyone found to have the procedure could be sent to prison. With street protests now an impossibility, the government has been tightening what are already seen as the most restrictive laws in Europe.
Global Pressure to Suspend Elections
Dignitaries around the world have called on Poland to suspend the elections, including Donald Tusk. Tusk who was President of the European Council from 2014-2019 and a former Polish Prime Minister also called on voters to boycott the elections, as “basic human decency does not allow us to participate in what is being proposed.” According to Al Jazeera, Tusk stated that the “government’s plan to hold the vote via a postal ballot was insufficient to mitigate safety concerns in the face of the coronavirus pandemic,” and he accused the ruling party of “subverting the constitution.”
Additionally, last month Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, the director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) for Security and Cooperation in Europe, expressed concern regarding the election. She states, “if the presidential election goes ahead under the current circumstances, it may fall short of a number of international standards.” The organization called on Poland to ‘preserve legal certainty’ and to ‘allow sufficient time for preparations and voter education.’ The organization, along with the E.U. and other foreign dignitaries recommend postponing the elections to the latter part of the year. This would ensure voter education, health and safety safeguards and allow the process to be more fair and transparent.