Presidential elections in Poland: what we know so far

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Jarosław Kaczyński's party pushed for presidential elections on the 10th of May at all costs. The plan backfired. The election will be most likely be held on the 28th of June or at the beginning of July. An explainer about the biggest political crisis in Poland's recent history



by Michał Danielewski

 

It is one of the greatest political crises in recent history of Poland. On the 10th of May 2020, the presidential elections did not take place. No one called it off, but no one was able to vote, even should they have wanted to do so.

 

Jarosław Kaczyński’s populist, right-wing ruling party Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS) was determined not to declare a state of emergency, which would have allowed the election to be postponed to a time when the COVID-19 threat has passed.

 

Until the last moment, PiS attempted to push through a postal ballot, without the involvement of the National Electoral Commission, hoping that the election, boycotted by the opposition, would give President Andrzej Duda a second term.

 

Setting the Scene

 

On 6th of March there are already a hundred thousand infected people around the world. The COVID-19 epidemic is spreading across Europe at lightning speed. Poland’s neighbour Germany has already recorded 536 cases. The President of Poland calls a joint press conference with Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki. They announce that the President will sign a bill giving PLN 2 billion to the state-controlled national media, including the public broadcaster, a propaganda machine.

 

In Poland, virus was at that time still considered an external threat, although the first case of infection was reported on the 4th of March. Poland is not alone in such thinking in Europe. But only in Poland will a disregard for the epidemic lead to such serious political consequences.

 

The Nuclear Option

Also on 6th of March the opposition-controlled Senate passed a so-called special COVID-19 bill, which granted the government extraordinary powers.

 

The government received an instrument which allowed them to bypass the constitution: they could now use any tools the constitution provides for states of emergency, without formally declaring such a state.

 

Why is that important? Declaring a state of emergency automatically postpones any elections until after the threat is over. It is the only instrument of law which makes changing the date of an election possible. The special bill gave the government free rein: they could control the date of the election.

 

Why did the opposition agree to this? According to the government, the law was to be a nuclear option which would not need to be used. Reality proved these promises to be empty.

 

On the 13th of March, the government declared a “state of epidemiological threat”: shops, bars, services and the borders were closed, group gatherings were forbidden.

 

On the 20th of March, a state of epidemic was declared. Theoretically, the government could have closed any city as “ground zero” and the election still would have had to take place on the 10th of May.

 

Clumsy Autocrats

On the 6th of April, we had 4 413 infections in Poland. On that day, PiS pushed a bill concerning a postal vote election, organised by the Polish Post and under the control of one of the ministers, through Parliament. The election ceased to be democratic.

 

The new bill still needed to go through the opposition-controlled Senate. Nonetheless, the government started preparations: without any legal backing, in total chaos, they printed ballots and attempted to prepare the Polish Post for their distribution. The ballots were leaked, the media reported electoral documents flying in the streets, and the majority of the opposition’s electorate declared that they would be boycotting the election.

 

With each passing day, it became increasingly evident that the ruling camp intended to go through, at any cost, with an election which would mean a de facto end to democracy in Poland.

 

However, a small issue cropped up: the government did not know how to organise said election.

 

At the beginning of May, it became very clear that the government had failed completely, organisation-wise. PiS’s coalition partner, Porozumienieparty led by Jarosław Gowin, unexpectedly entered the scene. Gowin, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Science and Higher Education, demanded that Kaczyński postpone the election.

 

After a few days of testing each other’s resolve, the politicians reached a compromise. They agreed that the election would take place on the 10th of May, but there would be no vote. And actually, it would take place at the end of June, at the earliest, under reinstated democratic control. The disintegrating electoral process seemed to have been patched up.

 

Nothing could have been farther from the truth.

 

One crisis after another

On the 9th of May, a day before the election in which no votes were to be cast, Polish politics were rocked by another crisis. Seeing Duda’s worsening polls, Kaczyński broke the agreement he had struck with his coalition partner and decided to hold the election on Saturday the 23rd of May. This would necessitate the government declaring an additional work-free day, a minor, irrelevant concern.

 

Many nervous discussions took place at the party’s headquarters, there was talk of dissolving the coalition, dismissing the Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

 

At the last moment, Kaczyński backed down and went back to what was previously agreed.

 

The election will, therefore, be most likely be held on the 28th of June or at the beginning of July.

 

It will no longer be a postal vote, but rather a mixed system. However, the bill is still in Parliament and the proceedings are taking place in an atmosphere of political war. In the meantime, the epidemic in Poland is not letting up, active cases have been growing more numerous since the beginning of May.

 

Translated by Jim Todd



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May 27, 2020

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