Following the Polish parliamentary elections in October 2019, some commentators believed that the re-elected ruling party PiS (Law and Justice) would modernize a little. Yet, they were disappointed. The restructuring of the state in a latently authoritarian direction is being pushed even further. The government’s worrying trend is particularly evident in the way it is trying to instrumentalise the Corona crisis for the upcoming presidential elections on 10th May.
The Polish President has greater power than, for example, the German President. Not only is he the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, but he can also refer laws that are submitted to him for signature to the Constitutional Court and, if they are found to be unconstitutional, put them on ice for good. He may also refuse to sign a law without constitutional justification. In that case, a 3/5 majority in parliament is required to pass the law after all.
One thing is evident: It can be a real obstacle for a government when the president is critical of many of its plans. Conversely, however, it is extremely practical if he is close to the government’s political course. Which brings us to the Polish incumbent: Andrzej Duda comes from the PiS camp. He knows how to present himself as the “human face” of the national conservatives. Now and then he offers a little resistance, such as against the first stage of the judicial reform or the appointment of new generals according to the party book. But when things got serious, he saw himself as the “notary” of the government, signing even the most problematic laws without criticism. With this course, he has so far managed to win over voters even beyond the tough PiS milieu. For the PiS he has thus become a real asset. In addition, the polls have long indicated that Duda would win re-election against any conceivable candidate of the opposition.
The PiS still wants to play it safe.
State of Emergency without State of Emergency
The Corona pandemic is almost right on cue. The Polish presidential elections are due to take place on 10 May. It is not unlikely that the existing corona emergency measures will still be in force at that time. In any case, they will dramatically affect the opposition’s election campaign in advance. While the incumbent president is omnipresent in the state media, which the PiS had already brought fully under its control at the beginning of its term of office, the opposition candidates are almost completely constricted in their election campaign. Election campaign events, for example, can no longer be conducted at all. The government is taking a tactically clever course. On the one hand, in the name of epidemic control, it is enacting more and more de facto emergency decrees (for example, Justice Minister Ziobro is planning a law that will allow up to 3 months imprisonment without a court order), but at the same time denies a state of emergency as such. The daily Gazeta Wyborcza comments with indignation that the real strong man in the country, PiS chairman Jaroslaw Kaczyński, is leading “the state in a state of emergency without declaring it”. But without a formal legal state of emergency the elections will not necessarily have to be cancelled. At the same time, according to a comment in the same newspaper, there are no demonstrations, no courts, no wage demands, no strikes. In short: Nobody disturbs the PiS in governing. So why postpone the elections?
What is clear is that this will have a huge impact on the election campaign of the opposition candidates – Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska from the centrist citizens’ coalition KO (of which the liberal party Nowoczesna is also a member), the moderate-conservative chairman of the Polish Peasant Party (PSL), Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz, the MEP Robert Biedroń from the Alliance of Left Parties, the candidate of the ultra-right confederation, Krzysztof Bosak, and the independent journalist Szymon Hołownia. All polls so far predict that the incumbent President Duda would easily win the first round of elections against this fragmented field of opposing candidates, but not by absolute majority. There would therefore be a second round of voting in which the runner-up would run against Duda alone. In all probability, this would be Kidawa-Błońska.
Fair Elections not Feasible
It is not only the majority of the population that does not believe that the elections should be held under the current conditions. There are also technical problems: For example, the local election commissions would have to be staffed with around 300,000 volunteers by April 10th and the local authorities do not know how to organise this in the times of Corona. The embassies and consulates are almost shut down. So how are thousands of foreign Poles supposed to register? Can the whole election be changed to postal voting? According to expert estimates, the Post Office would not be able to cope with the additional 9 million special items. In addition: for tactical reasons, the government had restricted televoting in 2018 – officially, because this would allow election fraud. The possibility that the Prime Minister’s office now brought into play, namely that urns could be brought to people in quarantine, was also abolished by the government itself. Moreover, the electoral law cannot be changed six months before an election.
In short, political decency and also purely factual and technical reasons make a postponement of the election almost imperative. The fact that the government has so far stubbornly insisted on holding the elections on the 10th of May is for purely mathematical and strategic reasons. One could speak of Machiavellian mathematics. The polls speak a clear language. Although figures published a few days ago by the opinion research institute IBRIS indicate that 73% of those surveyed want the presidential elections to be postponed, Duda’s supporters are more than willing to go to the polls in May, while opposition voters are increasingly thinking about abstaining from voting. The overall turnout would then fall to a staggering 31% (2015: 48.96%). Duda would receive 65% and be elected in the first round of voting. But if the elections were postponed, Duda would only get 44% because of the higher participation of opposition voters – which would be significantly higher than the predicted 19% for Kidawa-Błońska, but would make a second round of voting necessary. In this round, Duda would probably win with 53% to 39%, but there is a share of 8% that is still undecided. So why take the risk?
Machiavellian Election Polls
Fair elections are currently not feasible. From the perspective of unscrupulous power politics, sticking to the election date is somehow rational – at least for the ruling party.
Is a postponement still possible after all? The opposition is reacting increasingly harshly. Kidawa-Błońska wants to suspend its election campaign and calls for an election boycott. The elections would have to be postponed, says Adam Szłapka, chairman of the liberal Nowoczesna: “Everyone understands that, except Andrzej Duda!” According to a survey from last week, the proportion of those who are demanding a postponement has now even increased to 77.4%. The interesting thing is that even among Duda’s supporters the number is now 74%. According to this poll, the turnout would drop even further to 20.7% – a record low that raises the question of democratic legitimacy even if Duda is elected safely (with 54.6% in the first round of voting).
So far, however, the PiS has rarely followed such rules of conduct in political culture. Nevertheless, the trend that even its own supporters now view the party’s position very critically could be perceived by the PiS leadership as a long-term danger and strategic risk. There have been cautious statements by Duda since yesterday of him assuming that the epidemic will be over by Easter, so that the elections can be held without any problems. If that were not the case, the elections could not be held. Whether the government agrees with this opinion, however, is not yet clear. And perhaps Duda is just trying to polish up his image as a moderate, which has recently suffered severe damage due to the party’s Machiavellian position. In any case, it would be best for the country if fair rules applied to the presidential elections.
Dr. Detmar Doering
Project Director, FNF Central Europe and the Baltic States