Amid the pandemic outbreak of COVID-19, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party in Poland shows no intention of postponing the presidential elections scheduled for May 10. The outcome is likely to be deemed illegitimate. Will this be the last straw for Polish democracy?
As countries across Europe and the world struggle with coronavirus, life for many has come to a sudden halt. In these uncertain times, Poland finds itself in the run up to the presidential elections, scheduled to take place on May 10. Should none of the candidates secure an overall majority, a second and final vote will take place two weeks later.
The Polish government has passed emergency measures to tackle the impacts of the pandemic, restricting public events, all non-essential commerce, and international travel in a bid to ensure public safety.
However, with 40 days until the nation is set to go to the polls, the right-wing-populist PiS government has shown no intention of postponing the elections. It maintains the stance that there is no legitimate reason to reschedule, which would require a declaration of a state of emergency or an amendment to the Constitution.
The situation begs the question: why would the government push ahead with an election the outcome of which is likely to be deemed illegitimate?
With restrictions on public gatherings, opposition candidates have seen their campaigns effectively shut down, as citizens are told to stay home and self-isolate. The presidential hopefuls are unable to use their usual campaign tactics, which heavily rely on traveling across the country and meeting with voters along the campaign trail.
Meanwhile, Andrzej Duda, the PiS candidate and the current president, is using his presidential prerogative to continue to travel and appear across the country, effectively abusing the office to continue his presidential campaign bid.
From a point of view of the democratic standard, the decision to go ahead with the elections is a cause for concern.
In the first week of March, President Duda signed a controversial legislation passed by the Sejm that allocated PLN 2 bn, the equivalent of just under EUR 450 mn, to the state-run TV channels. The move has been heavily criticized by the opposition, who called for the funds to be used to support cancer treatment hospitals instead, accusing PiS of using large sums of tax-payers’ money to fund their own propaganda outlets.
But the legislation went ahead anyway, which already raised eyebrows of the critics who questioned the fairness of an election, in which the national media is not independent.
Without exposure on national television and unable to conduct meetings with voters, there are no grounds for fair campaigning, opposition argues.
Will Everyone Get to Vote?
Furthermore, holding the election in May does not only compromise the fairness of campaigning, but also risks compromising the civic rights of Poles. The government has introduced heavy fines for quarantined individuals for breaking the terms of their quarantine.
Would the citizens be punished for going to polling stations? One could imagine voters having their temperatures checked before casting their vote. But what would happen to those who appear unwell? Would they be turned away? This would be a clear violation of their civic rights, notes Wojtek Szacki, a journalist for Polityka Insight.
Besides, as health concerns intensify, particularly for the most vulnerable, turnout is likely to be hit hard, falling below 50% (2015 presidential election enjoyed turnout of 55.34%), seriously compromising the legitimacy of the outcome.
On top of compromised legitimacy and civic, holding the elections amid a pandemic outbreak puts voters, candidates, and electoral commission workers’ health at risk.
Ensuring the safety of roughly 300,000 electoral commission workers’ will be nearly impossible. The work cannot be done remotely, they will be in close contact with one another in each polling station, exposed to many more thousands of incoming voters.
President Duda’s reluctance to reschedule the election fundamentally puts both, such workers and voters at risk, exposing his disinterest in the safety of people engaged in the democratic process.
Why Go Ahead?
The question we should ask is why does PiS want to press ahead with an election that is likely to deliver an illegitimate outcome and put citizens’ safety at risk?
Forcing through an election, despite the extraordinary circumstances demonstrates two things about the position of the ruling party at this time: nervousness and blatant disregard for the democratic process.
Since coming to power in 2015, PiS has maintained its support by a campaign of generous government handouts – most notably, the 500+ program, giving PLN 500 (EUR 110) a month for each child to every family that claims it, regardless of income.
The policy is hugely expensive, accounting for 1.3% of GDP, compared with 4.7% of GDB that makes up public health expenditure. It was always a matter of time before the opportunity cost of this policy would make itself known, and the coronavirus outbreak is brutally exposing the scale of the campaign of negligence of the public health service PiS had conducted since coming to power.
By refusing to move the date of the election PiS is indicating its nervousness. It implies they have reasons to think they will struggle to win the elections, should they take place during the post-pandemic-peak, when the president and government will be judged on how well they dealt with the crisis.
There is also Andrzej Duda’s personal nervousness. He knows he is replaceable and that there are others in the PiS camp who are all too ready totake his place in the run for the nomination, should there be a new campaign.
Secondly, and perhaps even more worryingly, it signals how far gone is PiS’s disregard for the democratic process. If the election takes place, its outcome is unlikely to be seen as legitimate.
A recent poll published by the Super Express daily claims that 70% of those asked believe the elections should be postponed, with only 12% declaring that the election should go ahead as scheduled.
Andrzej Duda is likely to face heavy criticism from the independent media, the opposition, and the citizens who wanted to vote, but couldn’t because doing so would be too big a risk to their health. None of this seems to phase the president, who insists on pressing on with the election in May.
In a series of PiS policies resulting in the weakening of the democracy in Poland, this feels like the final straw. First the media, then the judiciary, and now the undermining of electoral integrity. Although it is a sign of a risis of confidence in the PiS camp, it is also a script for authoritarianism, as history knows all too well.
As liberal Europeans, we must stay vigilant and remember that democratic values and practices are fragile and require constant protection.
All power corrupts, even in the hands of the most well-meaning of leaders. It is the responsibility of us all to ensure such power has no opportunity to become absolute.
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