Who Is in Charge? Poland’s Presidential Election Chaos Exposes Power Outside of Commander in Chief’s Office

800px-Jan_Matejko_-_Stańczyk_-_Google_Art_Project
Jan Matejko "Stańczyk" // Public domain

On Thursday night, the nation tuned in to watch the presidential debate aired on national television in the absurd reality in which neither the audience, nor the candidates themselves yet knew whether the elections would go ahead as planned on May 10, just four days later.

In hindsight, the only candidate that must have been aware of the sham that was the debate was the government’s incumbent Andrzej Duda. He was surely aware that the ruling party (Law and Justice, PiS) was already preparing the decision to postpone the presidential elections to a later date.

It showed in his demeanor. He was smiling, relaxed, offering answers to questions with the confidence of someone interviewing for a job as a formality, knowing they have already secured the position thanks to nepotism.

While presidential candidates got to play their part in what felt like a pretend game of ‘who wants to be the Commander in Chief, the real decision-making power was never in the room.

As they scrambled to offer soundbite answers to broad and generic, and often suggestive questions, the decision to delay the elections was already made behind closed doors by two conservative backbenchers, Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Jaroslaw Gowin.

Backroom Deals

The meeting between Kaczynski and Gowin had been crucial in maintaining a united right. Gowin represents a small fraction of conservative MPs who have somewhat stepped away from PiS — calling for a more measured approach from the government in matters relating to the rule of law and judicial independence as well as the presidential elections.

Nevertheless, whatever the offer Kaczynski had made Gowin, it proved more attractive than continuing to keep the government on its toes.

A deal they struck at last. The presidential elections on May 10 will not go ahead, and the High Court will officially invalidate them. It will then be up to the Marshal of Sejm to write up new elections for a yet unspecified later date.

The time frame considered for new elections is between May 27 to mid-July.

Who Holds the Power?

In Poland, it is common knowledge that Kaczynski is the real leader within the PiS camp, to whom both the prime minister and the president of Poland report to, to name a few. It was Kaczynski who ultimately needed to be persuaded by Gowin to delay the elections since they had little chance of securing legitimacy.

The agreement struck between two backbench members of Sejm has exposed the true extent to which PiS ignores the democratic institutions and procedures in Poland. The power lies in the hands of individuals who hold no significant leadership positions.

In one meeting Kaczynski and Gowin had made decisions that assumed the ruling of the High Court and resulted in changes to electoral procedures out of line with constitutional precedent.

It has also exposed how the current PiS regime makes a mockery of the office of president (and prime minister). The presidential debate should be an event of utmost importance for all participants and viewers, an opportunity for candidates to make known their different visions for the representation and leadership of the nation.

It created quite the opposite image to see candidates on stage compete unsure whether the decision of a single backbencher will halt the continuation of the leadership process.

Why Postpone?

PiS was eager to stick to the May 10 election date on the advice that their candidate Andrzej Duda has the most chance of victory before the public has fully felt the consequences of the government’s health and economic mismanagement.

While there have been previous sensible solutions proposed, such as Gowin’s idea to change the constitution, extend Duda’s term by two years, and hold the elections in post-pandemic times, Kaczynski has rejected them all. Instead, opting for what is an ad hoc, rushed, and unreasonable plan of action.

Attempting to force through mail-only voting that fails to ensure secrecy; u-turning at the last minute, resulting in vast wastes of taxpayers money; and planning to reschedule the elections only by few weeks which will unlikely solve the COVID-19 related safety concerns.

In times of crisis, the Constitution expects the government to declare a state of a natural disaster (just one of the constitutionally sound solutions), which would imminently delay any election calendars. PiS has refused to do this, presumably because securing Duda’s next term as president as quickly as possible was on top of the agenda.

When Office Does Not Matter

Shady politics of PiS is nothing new. The calculated attack on democratic institutions began in 2015 when the party secured an overall majority in Sejm.

Nevertheless, what is striking is the blatant nature of its conduct exposed by its decisions with regards to the presidential elections.

It appears that the office of president (and prime minister, as both report back to Kaczynski) holds no real value in power terms. By failing to uphold leadership responsibilities associated with their office and fulfilling Kaczynski’s wishes instead, Andrzej Duda and Mateusz Morawiecki are unfit to hold those offices. They should be booted out on the grounds of no confidence.

Disrespecting the highest offices of leadership in the country is a serious offence with consequences reaching beyond their persons, but that will result in a lasting mark on people’s relationship with the government in years to come. They have both shown that leaders are not accountable directly to the people but an oligarchy of influential individuals.

Backsliding Democracy

Criticism of backsliding democracy in Poland continues on the EU and international level, however, without effect. Poland remains the largest beneficiary of EU funds, and one can expect no changes will occur unless this is at stake.

Having undone so much of the democratic progress in Poland, it would be naive to expect the culpable to back away now. Too much is at stake as a change in leadership will likely result in criminal proceedings for many involved.

It thus remains to be seen whether Poland, a young and fragile democracy with the recent memory of foreign rule, will be able to stand this typical for new democracies test of its institutions.

Political unrest is on the rise with protesters gathering in Warsaw despite the social distancing restrictions in place. PiS is widely underprepared for the economic downturn that will follow the pandemic outbreak and has already failed to support business owners and workers effectively.

What power-grabbing behavior could slide in times of prosperity, will be harder for people to swallow in times of economic hardship.

The delayed elections give the opposition a small but significant window of opportunity to make known the responsibilities of the office of president – to make often tricky decisions for the good of the nation. President Duda has already shown to be Kaczynski’s president, not the people’s president.

What he appears oblivious to is that regardless of whom he chooses to follow, the seat he sits in is one of great responsibility. Meaning, when the time will come to point fingers towards the guilty of dismantling Poland’s democracy, they will land on him, not Kaczynski.

After all, why should the president overlook the responsibilities of his office to appease a common backbencher?


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Maria Slominska-Fabis
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