On Monday morning, the Law and Justice (PiS) government lost a vote in the Polish parliament (Sejm) on its proposed changes to the electoral law that would make voting in the May presidential elections available to citizens only by means of a postal vote. But oppositions’ glee was short-lived as PiS was quick to orchestrate another vote that night (against the law) on a “new” bill that differed only by two small, albeit significant, points.
Soon after 10 pm, it was clear that PiS had decided that, despite a state of pandemic, Poland will choose its next President in May, and will do so by post only.
What PiS did in Sejm is not democracy. It is a strategic bid to elect a president at all costs, including the disregard of the Constitution, democratic integrity, and most importantly, the state’s responsibility to protect the life and health of its citizens.
The passed legislation is unconstitutional and has exposed the daunting extent to which PiS is willing to go in order to maintain its hold on power, ever closely resembling a coup d’état.
Previously in Poland, only people with specific disabilities could cast a vote by post, having made earlier arrangements with their council. This legislation is very different, stating that postal “voting packages” will be sent across Poland, without the need for a prior request or register, to all addresses on the “registration lists” which is a basic administrative list that the Post Office has access to.
Registration lists tend to be outdated and 20% of voters do not vote in the area they are registered it. PiS chose to tackle this problem by holding yet another sudden vote in Sejm, this time at 3:15 am, in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
This vote grants the Post Office access to the personal information of all 38 million of registered voters in Poland constituting a data protection breach on a national scale. These actions show that PiS is no longer playing by the rules and is now committing an open attack on the integrity of the democratic process in Poland.
This legislation will likely cause this election to lose all characteristics of a democratic election stated in the Constitution, “universal, equal and direct elections, conducted by a secret ballot”.
The government’s plan to mass-send unrequested “voting packages” across Poland to unconfirmed addresses does not guarantee that they will be received, opened by their rightful recipient, and returned uncompromised in any other way.
The legislation also excludes all Poles abroad, whose right to vote will be undermined by social distancing measures they find themselves under.
Unlike some other European countries, Poland has no previously existing infrastructure to effectively carry out postal voting on a nationwide scale. And by making postal voting the only means of casting a vote, PiS is undermining the Constitutional right to direct elections.
Voters cannot physically place their ballots into ballot boxes, which would allow for greater confidence of their vote being taken into account. Regardless of whether they are happy to or not, they must trust the Post Office to deliver their vote, and without significant experience or any specific guarantees that they can do so.
The problem of secrecy also arises. Typically, when casting to vote a person must show a picture ID to confirm their identity. The legislation states that the postal “voting package” will include a declaration document which you must sign stating that it is in fact you who is casting the vote, which then returns to the Post Office together with your vote.
Hence, your vote, together with your personal information, must travel through the Post Office system with no guarantees that the “voting package” won’t compromise the secrecy of your vote.
Let me respectfully remind you of the earlier mentioned two “small, but significant” changes PiS proposed when forcing through this late-night legislation.
One of them states that the Marshal of Sejm may decide to reschedule the election if a state of an epidemic is declared, but must still remain within the time frames specified in the Constitution, which would make May17 the only other possible date.
This is no accident. As the parliamentary procedure dictates, the Senate can delay legislation by no more than 30 days.
Assuming that it will choose to do so, as PiS does not have a majority in the Senate, the legislation could only come into force as little as a couple of days before the election date making the technical execution of it much more tricky for the government. The seemingly insignificant seven days could be decisive in whether this election can go ahead at all.
The granting of such a power requires changing the Constitution, which must not be done through a regular legislation bill. PiS is demonstrating its blatant disregard for Constitutional law, which is of great concern to Poland’s democracy in this time of an international crisis.
The other small, but significant, change threatens up to three years of imprisonment for “those who destroy, damage, hide, or forges a voting card.” This is an outrageous proposal. Does it mean the threat of imprisonment for unsuspecting citizens, who never received or returned their voting cards?
However, lawyers warn that the unconstitutional nature of the planned election risks that those taking part can be held legally responsible and receive jail time, meaning that PiS could be putting voters in a deeply compromising position. PiS’s actions have long surpassed controversial and questionable, morphing into what history may remember as a campaign of crimes against the state.
Polls show that 80% of the country does not want to hold an election in May. People are worried not about who to vote for, but about their jobs, businesses, and livelihoods and about the effectiveness of the government’s support mechanisms.
It is clear to me that the government’s irresponsible and wasteful public spending policy has left Poland without essential reserves to deal with a crisis of such magnitude as a global pandemic. The country is not prepared on the health front, nor the economic front, with a wealth worker accounting for every 6th, confirmed coronavirus case and minimal financial help for businesses that will leave many jobless and bankrupt.
PiS’s politics has left Poland looking down the barrel of a health and economic crisis that can result in widespread discontent. Instead of focusing on protecting its citizens, the party is further supplying the country with an additional constitutional crisis.
By undermining the democratic legitimacy of the presidential election, PiS has exposed itself as a group of power-hungry and dangerous fanatics who were willing to sacrifice the rights and lives of Polish men and women.
The national costs of PiS in power may long outlive its rule.
Poland’s democracy is still new and fragile. It must be protected or it will become only a distant dream of those who fought for a free and independent Poland.
Poles have always bravely battled with foreign invaders and were willing to fight for their country. But a real patriot must be willing to protect its country from its own government. The time is now.