EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy

With less than a month away, Poland’s presidential elections are still scheduled for May 10th despite the current COVID–19 crisis that has paralyzed the country and world. Poland has ignored warnings to postpone like other European nations including Serbia, North Macedonia, and Romania, who have heeded international caution by pushing back elections to later dates. Poland has recently stated that despite the disruption and fear of infection, they will still proceed with the elections albeit with no physical polling stations.

 

Instead, all ballots will be delivered by post and dropped off at special post boxes in local areas and then sent for counting. This accounts for the first round, scheduled for 10 May, and for a potential second round run-off vote on 24 May. While this eliminates the physical contact people would encounter while travelling to voting booths, people fear contamination through the postal process and not to mention the “concerns the Polish postal service cannot organise such a massive logistical effort in a matter of weeks.” Last but certainly not least, legitimate concerns have been raised on voter fraud and election meddling.

Despite the logistics and fear of spreading the virus, many concerns are focused on the political gain that the incumbent Andrzej Duda, supported by the socially conservative ruling party, the Law and Justice party (PiS), will have in the elections giving the opposition’s little chance to campaign. Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska, the candidate from the opposition center right party, Civic Platform (PO), tweeted that the PiS was “conducting a coup d’état to ensure full power for the coming years.” If Duda wins the election, it would guarantee PiS’s occupation in power and influential positions for another 5 years.

Democracy under fire

Since taking power in 2015, Poland has undergone a political and judicial transformation that has undermined the country’s rule-of-law and fueled anti-EU rhetoric, populist and nationalistic fervor. The party, led by Jarosław Kaczyński, passed a number of laws giving the “government more direct control over the courts and judges, violating rule-of-law commitments when the country joined the European Union” and placed limitations on media with controversial laws enabling the government to “appoint the heads of public TV and radio, as well as civil service directors.” The rift these policies have caused within the EU have built up over the years, exacerbated by issues from migration, EU legislation to even how the EU is handling the current COVID–19 crisis.

President Duda recently stated that the situation “caused by the coronavirus epidemic ‘is proof that the EU needs reform,’ and that the role of the European Parliament and the European Council should be strengthened while the European Commission’s role should be limited.” Unfortunately, this follows a traditional pattern by the V4 to call for reforms, but not propose any feasible options in its place. Instead, it creates divisions when Europe should be finding collaborative approaches to ensure that the EU is fit for the global challenges of tomorrow, not divisive ones.

While PiS won a general election last fall and latest polls show incumbent President Duda in the lead, opposition parties had been building a counterstrategy in order to change the election tide. The general election saw PiS’s grip on power loosen a degree when they lost the Senate, and many hoped for similar shifts in the upcoming Presidential election – though, this was before the Covid-19 crisis. Opponent Kidawa-Błońska has called for Poland to boycott the elections to no avail and has even suspended her campaign. Meanwhile, a recent poll conducted by IBRiS stated that “more than 77 percent of Poles think it would be good for the presidential elections to be postponed for a year”. Some have even claim that a “state of natural disaster” should be declared which would call for a “provisional date for an election in 6 to 12 months’ time.” However, the incumbent elect is pushing ahead with the election, despite warnings and the fact that the country is under a nation-wide lockdown – the chances of a free, fair and informed election process seems to be diminishing.

Domino effect

Why should Poland’s upcoming election concern anyone? Whether the election takes place when scheduled or not, the fundamental concern is how Poland’s leadership is handling the current situation. The draconian measures taken during the current COVID–19 crisis are not limited to just Poland, other countries have taken similar measures and regulations in order to protect their citizens from the current and looming impacts of the crisis. But apparently not enough to postpone an election, President Duda stated “if there are conditions to go to a shop, then there are conditions to go to a polling station” leaving many to choose health over their voting rights.

Free and fair elections are at the cornerstone of any democratic process. Governments should not legitimatize certain mechanisms taken during times of crisis in order to ascertain political gain. Last week, the governing PiS party submitted and passed legislation to introduce universal postal voting. Usually any amendments to the electoral procedure must be done six months prior to the election. Election processes are in place in order to safeguard democratic procedures, they should not be “temporarily suspended or circumvented in order to enable the decision making and crisis management to be as swift and efficient as possible.”

Poland’s Visegrad neighbor, Hungary, has unfortunately succumbed to these fears well before the crisis but have used the crisis to place extreme restrictions on media and introducing a bill that would give them the mandate to “rule the country by decrees and essentially without parliamentary oversight”. Hungary has demonstrated similar exercise of power by declaring in 2015 a ‘state of crisis due to mass migration’ which gives unrestricted powers to law enforcement authorities. Routinely renewed every 6 months – despite the lack of migration crisis – the measures taken for this crisis, given that there is no set timeframe for when these measures will end, should be cause for concern.

As other Visegrad countries take approaches less extreme, the region’s fragmented approach should be of concern given the close boarders, similar security and economic objectives. Democracy was what once brought the region together but shouldn’t be what divides them.

Stronger together, not apart

As nations grapple with the current crisis, coordinating policies, resources and even information sharing is vital to the EU’s success in combating the crisis and brace for the aftermath. As one the largest tests and strains to the EU project, member countries will need to work together, not apart in order to successfully address the economic impact that looms. Issues around Brexit or the future of the EU should be the last issue that concerns countries like Poland, instead, rechanneling their concerns towards overcoming the crisis and rebuilding their economy. In this respect, the crisis represents an opportune moment for Poland and, indeed, the V4 to enter the 21st century and embark on a green, sustainable transition as a cornerstone of its economic recovery to both economic and health benefits of their populations.

Whatever the outcome of Poland’s election come May, the next President will need to deal with the health, political and democratic ramifications of the elections. With the President’s legitimacy will be in question both nationally and internationally, one hopes that after the crisis passes, that Poland will take a health-check on their democracy and find ways to repair their democracy and strengthen ties with the EU. Otherwise, Poland’s democratic backsliding can shift to a landslide and cause more harm to their democratic values – something Poland has fought hard to obtain.

Danielle Piatkiewicz

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