Why Poland’s “ghost election” sends a warning about its democracy

As in Hungary, the pandemic could be exploited by the ruling party for a new power grab.

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Coronavirus has had a chilling impact on the global economy and our social lives, but in many countries it has provoked political conflicts and intensified the struggle for power. This is the case in Poland, where last Sunday’s planned presidential contest (10 May) became a strange “ghost election” with no votes cast.

As Covid-19 spread across the globe this spring, some countries cancelled elections. In the UK, local elections, including the London mayoral election, were postponed for a year. But while Warsaw responded firmly to the virus, closing schools, restaurants and its borders in mid-March, the ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party was determined to proceed with the presidential election. Its candidate, the current president Andrzej Duda, was the frontrunner to win a second five-year term.

In Poland, in contrast to the prime minister, the president is largely a figurehead with the power to veto laws. Were PiS to lose the presidency, the ruling party would lose its ability to force legislation through parliament. It has a majority in the Sejm, the lower house, but the centrist opposition controls the upper house, the Senate.

Duda faced five main rivals for the presidency, ranging from the nationalist right to the centre left, represented by Robert Biedroń, a progressive former mayor who is openly gay. A total of ten candidates registered.

As with other political leaders in the early stages of the pandemic, Duda has so far enjoyed a level of public trust that has helped him to stay ahead in the polls. For PiS, an early election would have helped to capitalise on this – while a surge in coronavirus cases or related economic consequences might have affected the government’s ratings and damaged Duda’s chances of re-election.

The solution offered by PiS was to try to organise the election by post, even though Poland has no tradition of postal voting (it is usually only used by those who unable to physically cast their votes due to disability). In the previous presidential election in 2015, just 42,814 people registered to vote by post. This time, ballots would have had to be delivered to around 30 million voters at short notice – a vast logistical challenge, especially as some postal voters had threatened to go on strike.

Critics warned that even if the postal vote were possible, the election would not be free and fair. The ban on public events introduced in March due to the coronavirus meant that candidates could not hold meetings or rallies with voters around the country, which are usually a major part of their campaigns. Duda, meanwhile, has already completed a tour of all 380 of Poland’s counties.

“Elections should be safe, free, and fair at all times, including during a deadly pandemic,” said Lydia Gall, senior Balkan and Eastern European Union researcher at Human Rights Watch. PiS’s proposals to rush through the election “dangerously undermine the integrity of Poland’s democracy,” she added.

The ruling party’s determination to hold the election was criticised not just by the centrist opposition, but also by one of PiS’s own junior coalition partners, Accord (Porozumienie), which is more moderately conservative and pro-business. Without the party’s 18 MPs, PiS would lose its governing majority in parliament.

Nor were Poles themselves keen to vote this month. In a poll published last week, 59 per cent of respondents said they would not vote in the planned election. In contrast, 69 per cent would vote if it were postponed until August.      

Under pressure from Accord, PiS finally relented on 6 May, just days before the scheduled vote. After reaching an agreement with Accord’s leader, PiS’s chairman Jarosław Kaczyński simply announced that the election on 10 May would not take place. The result from the zero per cent turnout will be disregarded. PiS now plans to schedule a new election date, most likely around the end of June. This will give it more time to organise the election, including postal voting.

The decision prompted mixed feelings among PiS’s critics. Although the opposition had called for the election to be postponed, it was not pleased by the manner in which this was done: through an informal agreement between the leaders of the ruling coalition, rather than a vote in parliament. It highlighted a widely held suspicion in Poland and abroad that it is Kaczyński, who holds no formal government job, who pulls the strings.  

This informal leadership and bypassing of democratic institutions has been a feature of Polish politics since PiS came to power in 2015. It relates to wider concerns about the state of democracy and the rule of law in the country. In its latest Nations in Transit report, published last week, the US think tank Freedom House downgraded Poland from a “consolidated democracy” to a “semi-consolidated democracy”, due to the government’s attacks on judicial independence. (Hungary’s decline has been even worse: Freedom House now calls it a “hybrid regime”.)

“If Poland continues on this course, it will join hybrid regimes and autocracies that routinely mete out politicised justice,” the report warns.

In Hungary, Viktor Orbán, the country’s prime minister since 2010, has used the pandemic to adopt an emergency law that allows the government to rule by decree indefinitely. Similarly, critics accuse PiS of prioritising power by pushing for the election to go ahead, despite virus-related safety concerns.

On the economic front, it appears as if Poland will be less affected by the coronavirus crisis than other countries in Europe. According to the European Commission’s latest forecasts, its GDP will contract by 4.3 per cent this year, the lowest in the EU. In Greece, Italy and Spain, it will fall by over 9 per cent.

But the controversy over the presidential election could have long-term political repercussions. Even if the vote is held safely next month, doubts about the electoral process – and how the country is run – will endure.

Annabelle Chapman writes for the Economist and Monocle

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