Guest contribution by Milosz Hodún
Today it is Wednesday, May 6th, three days before the planned elections in Poland and it is still not known if and when they will be held.
So far, the only binding piece of legislation planned the traditional (in polling stations) presidential election for May 10th. Due to the pandemic, the Polish Sejm, in which the ruling national-conservative PiS party has a narrow majority, passed a bill on April 6th to conduct a mail-in voting. With 50 to 35 votes, however, the Senate rejected this draft last night. The proposal thus returns to the Sejm, which is expected to vote on it yet today in the evening.
If the majority in the Sejm approves the bill, president Andrzej Duda will sign it immediately and mail-in voting could be organized this weekend. In other words, Poles will get to know about how they can vote only a few days before the election. And such mail-in elections have never taken place in Poland. A preparation process that is usually planned for years in other countries, takes only a couple of days in Poland. How is this logistically possible? According to the special Covid-19 law it is not the independent National Electoral Committee which organizes the elections but the Ministry of State Assets together with the Polish Post. Politicians not judges will prepare and count the ballots this time. The government is printing the ballots and so called “electoral packages” without any legal basis. And what if there is not enough time for all the postal logistics? Then the Speaker of the Sejm could move the elections to May 17th or even May 23rd if the Prime Minister declares this Saturday a bank holiday (the elections in Poland can take place only on Sunday or during a bank holiday).
PiS is extremely determined to hold the presidential elections by postal voting as soon as possible. Experts and the opposition say there is no way the election will take place on May 10th as planned. OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) – that has its office in Warsaw – issued an opinion criticizing the bill as incompatible with international standards of democratic elections. Other institutions, both international (e.g. Council of Europe) and national (the Ombudsman) also voiced their criticism. The Supreme Court has already assessed the vote as unconstitutional. “In the proposed form, elections will be neither direct, nor equal, nor universal,” commented Professor Adam Strzembosz, the former Supreme Court president and one of the most respected jurists in the country. In mid-April, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the response of EU countries to the spread of Covid-19. One of its points referred to the planned presidential elections in Poland as “steps completely incompatible with European values”.
The main criticism coming from the opposition is not of a legal nature though. It is about the threat for life and health of millions of voters that May elections will cause. The ballot envelopes can easily be contaminated with the virus, they said, and there are no provisions in the new legislation for their disinfection, or for how the ballots could be safely returned. After the ballots would be cast, they would have to be counted. However, due to fears of Covid-19, there is not enough people to do this work.
The elections in May, traditional or postal, are not taken for granted. As mentioned above, everything should be decided in the Sejm today. And the final result of the crucial vote is not known yet. How is such uncertainty possible in a country ruled for last five years with a heavy hand by Jarosław Kaczyński, in a country where state institutions do whatever the leader tells them to do? To answer this question one needs to know that what is normally called PiS is actually a coalition of PiS and two small parties, namely Solidary Poland and the Alliance. They have 18 MPs each and without their support PiS do not have the majority in the Sejm. The May elections are opposed by Jarosław Gowin, leader of the Alliance, sometimes described as a softer wing of PiS, more focused on the economy and entrepreneurship (Gowin himself was a prominent member of the Civic Platform and even served as Minister of Justice in the cabinet of Prime Minister Donald Tusk). Until recently, Gowin was deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Science but he quit opposing the most recent changes in the electoral law. If Gowin and at least four of his MPs vote together with the opposition, the elections in May will not be possible.
It has been reported that Gowin was promised to become a new Speaker of the Sejm, formally second most important person in the Republic. Even though Gowin says that he still wants to be a part of the PiS majority supporting the government and supporting Andrzej Duda as his presidential candidate, it is very hard to imagine him still working with Jarosław Kaczyński. It is well known that Kaczyński does not forgive betrayals. PiS spokesperson has announced that by voting against the bill, the Alliance is excluding itself from the government. PiS is also trying to “buy” some of the opposition MPs with well-paid or prestigious jobs in public administration.
It is also very difficult to imagine Gowin creating a new government majority with all opposition parties, from far right Confederation to Civic Coalition to the Left, but it is said that he could merge with the Christian-democratic Polish People´s Party (PSL). Such a block could build a conservative alternative to PiS in next elections. The results of the vote in the Sejm are impossible to predict, just like its long-term consequences.
And if the opposition wins in the parliament and the elections will have to be postponed, when will they be held? Every party and every candidate has own strategy.
Civic Coalition and its candidate Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska are calling to boycott the May elections as they breach the constitution. Kidawa-Błońska made even her campaign hashtag #OniWyboryMyŻycie, or #ThemElectionsUsLife. However, it is very likely that this is exactly what PiS wants, as polls suggest that in case of low turnout, Duda would win in the first round. Since majority of Civic Coalition voters agree with Kidawa-Błońska and declare they will not vote, her support in polls is very low, ca. 5%. Moreover, some voters do not understand what this boycott exactly means. Kidawa-Błońska says the only solution is to declare the state of emergency due to the pandemic and organize real elections in May 2021.
Two center-right candidates, Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz from PSL and independent Szymon Hołownia, are trying to take runner off’s position left by Kidawa-Błońska. They also call the Prime Minister to declare the state of emergency and organize elections later this year but they will not boycott any elections now. Both see their chance of becoming on the second ballot against Andrzej Duda to strengthen their political movement. Robert Biedroń, the candidate of the Left, is talking about elections in the fall but with a very weak campaign, he has no chances in this race.
One more proposal, that should be commented, is the one of Jarosław Gowin. He says the Constitution should be changed, the term of Andrzej Duda should be prolonged until 2022 without a right to run again. This idea was supported by PiS but was not welcomed by any of the opposition parties. PiS believes this the second best idea, just after the May elections. Social distancing makes the electoral process unequal favoring the incumbent head of state. Andrzej Duda is the only one who can travel across the country, shaking hands with medical staff, visiting factories, etc. His opponents can run only on-line events and limited press conferences. Elections in the fall or in May 2021 lower Duda’s chance for reelection since Poles will feel negative consequences of the post-Covid-19 economic crisis, including the increase of unemployment. Elections in 2022 give PiS some hopes for economic boost and better result. And Jarosław Kaczyński can’t afford to lose the president now. Already without the Senate and with slim majority in the Sejm it is becoming difficult for him to adopt all his revolutionary changes.
According to the latest survey conducted by IBRIS for Rzeczpospolita, 32% of Poles would postpone elections by a year. More than a quarter of respondents opted for the current date, given the choice of May (25,4%), August (5,6%), September (5,8%), October (10,4%), November (5,9%) and December (3,7%). All options are on the table. One of the most important games of Polish politics in recent years is just going to an end. Or maybe only starting now. One thing we know for sure, the result of this game may change the political landscape in Poland opening the door for the wind of change. One thing we do not know at all is when Poles will choose their new president.
Milosz Hodún is an expert at the Nowoczesna party. PhD, formerly a part-time teacher at Reykjavik University School of Law. His main areas of interest are comparative constitutional law and federalism. Board member of Projekt: Polska Association. Until September 2015, he worked as an expert within “Presidential Experts’ Programme” at the Chancellery of the President of the Republic of Poland. He is member of the Board of Directors of the European Liberal Forum.