EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy

Four days before the Polish Presidential election was scheduled to take place on May 10th, Poland’s governing coalition parties reached an agreement to postpone the election to a later date. While the legal bases of their decision are still unclear, party leaders state that their decision was in anticipation that the Supreme Court would declare the election “invalid because of the inability to vote physically under coronavirus restrictions.”

Shortly after the announcement, Porozumienie (Accord) party leader Jaroslaw Gowin stated that “we worked out a solution which is good for Poland, which guarantees safe, fully democratic and transparent elections.”

While this certainly sounds like a legitimate and sound decision by the Law and Justice (PiS) party, concerns over holding the election during a pandemic have been hotly contested for several months, despite the decision to hold the elections by post. The true question is why did Warsaw wait until the last minute before the election to postpone?

How did Poland get here?

Since the start of the pandemic, Poland has had ample time to reschedule or postpone the elections but decided to proceed despite international and domestic calls to postpone.

Many concerns have ranged over the potential health risks to the logistics required to pull off postal voting of this magnitude. In addition, legitimate concerns over voter fraud and election meddling had been raised. Warsaw also ignored recommendations from the Council of Europe asking countries not to carry out “fundamental changes” to electoral rules. Poland violated this by submitting and passing legislation to introduce universal postal voting a few months ahead of the election where typically any amendments to the electoral procedure must be done six months prior to the election. EU Values and Transparency Commissioner Vera Jourova also raised concerns and questioned the legality and constitutional grounds of holding the elections during a global pandemic.

Opposition leaders have called early on for the election to be postponed, which resulted in many boycotting the election. These concerns were stemmed from the unfair political gain that the incumbent Andrzej Duda, supported by the socially conservative ruling party, PiS party, would have (and still has). For example, election observers stated that “the ballot would not be sufficiently transparent nor fair given that candidates have suspended campaigning due to the lockdown.”

Even now, the decision to delay the election is “legally problematic without the declaration of a state of emergency.” By declaring a state of natural disaster, it would have called for a provisional date for an election in 6 to 12 months’ time but instead, by delaying the vote after the May 10, 2020 date passes, the Supreme Court “annuls the election as expected in light of the fact that the vote will not have taken place, the speaker of parliament will announce a new presidential election for the first available date.”

The governing PiS Party had been determined to push ahead with the elections in May to ensure that their nominee, President Duda, would get reelected for another 5-year term – continuing their grip on power in the country. When it was looking like the election would not take place, they even pushed through the lower house of parliament (Sejm) shortly after to approve legislation allowing a postal vote for the rescheduled election – in step with their push to reschedule the election asap.

PiS vs EU

The latest debacle with the elections is unfortunately not the only misstep taken by Poland’s governing PiS party. Poland has been under scrutiny since the political party shift in 2015, which led to sweeping judicial reforms and prompted the European Commission to accuse the PiS party of “curtailing the judiciary’s independence and undermining the separation of powers.” This was prompted by the government taking steps to silence independent media outlets, journalists, stance on gay rights and recently hampering women’s rights – the list goes on.

More recently, Poland has found itself at the center of controversy when it overhauled the disciplinary system that allows judges to be disciplined for criticizing the system through various means including demotion, fines or even at the cost of their positions. The European Commission issued the 4th infringement procedure against Poland on April 29th, stating that it undermines the judicial independence and fundamental rule of law by not allowing judges to fulfil their role in ensuring the application of EU law.

The Polish government now has two months from April 29th to reply to the letter. At the end of this process, further action may involve an official complaint against Poland to the European Court of Justice (ECJ). Warsaw has, on the other hand, dismissed these accusations and has used EU’s pressure to further fuel anti-EU rhetoric taking hold in the county.

Glimmers of hope?

Even though the PiS party-supported President Duda was leading in polls ahead of the election, the general election last fall 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 – maybe now is their chance.
As the full ramifications of the pandemic unfold, the economic toll and stress on the health system will only intensify. Both President Duda and the PiS party will be under more scrutiny as a “period of sustained economic pain will follow the lifting of the national lockdown and fearful that voters will take it out on them.”
As President Duda navigates these challenges, the presidential election debacle has only amplified and intensified the democratic backsliding occurring in the country. As the EU continues to pressure the governing party on their constitutional violations, the international community is now watching. Hopefully this postponement can put Poland’s democracy and rule of law back on track come the next election.

Danielle Piatkiewicz

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