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The electoral disgrace of the right-wing government in Poland

Anna Pacześniak
Anna Pacześniak is professor at the University of Wroclaw and member of the FEPS Scientific Council

This last Sunday, 10th May, presidential elections were meant to be held in Poland. Until the very last moment there were no legal guidelines for how to organise them. That is because even though, following the Constitution, they take place every 5 years, this time the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) proposed substantial changes to the electoral law just one month prior to the day. In the midst of chaos and in the view of an expected disgrace, the elections were postponed. There is no new date provided and there are no further details how the election will be organised.

While numerous countries decided to postpone elections and referenda because of the pandemic outbreak of the new corona virus, the situation in Poland is extraordinary as the delay is not caused by the pandemic at all. In fact, the right-wing government had gone initially against the trend and insisted the vote should be held. Not only had they not declared a state of emergency (under which any elections would have been proscribed for at least 90 days), but also, they decided to change the rules of the game when the electoral campaign had been already in a full speed. Just weeks before the date of the first round, the Sejm (lower Chamber) discussed and endorsed a draft of a bill, which ruled that the presidential elections would be carried out exclusively by postal voting. Herewith also the critical aspects of the electoral process were transferred away from the independent supervisory body – the National Election Commission (NEC) – to one of the ministers. 

“The move may seem odd, as the polls were consistently showing that it was the incumbent President, Andrzej Duda, who was a frontrunner.”

Clearly, this undermined the core democratic principles according to which the elections should be direct and enable voters to cast the ballot anonymously. The proposal of the bill quickly started being labelled colloquially as “the Envelope Bill” – uniting in the name the reference to the functional aspect, as well as the telling idiom in which a result is known and carried onto the stage “in an envelope”.

The move may seem odd, as the polls were consistently showing that it was the incumbent President, Andrzej Duda, who was a frontrunner. His candidacy has been supported by Jarosław Kaczyński, Chair of the Law and Justice Party. Naturally, President Duda was nothing but an asset – having proven regularly in the past 5 years that he guarantees easy governing to the political camp of the United Right. He has steadily signed off all the bills, even those that would undermine the rule of law. Having skipped last Sunday’s election however may hinder his position. The expected negative economic consequences of the pandemics may quickly undermine the government and the President, altering citizens’ leanings in an election at a later stage. Especially because all surveys show that Poles are afraid losing jobs and income before anything else.

“When speaking about the rule of directness, an exclusively postal vote is an evident contradiction.”

This also explains the hastiness and the botched attempts to advance with the new electoral bill, even though international institutions (such as the OSCE and its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights) and many lawyers have opposed the change. Their objection came from the belief that the way that PiS proposed to change the rules would lead to running elections in a way that has very little – if anything – to do with basic democratic values, according to which the elections should be universal, direct, equal and enable secret ballots. 

Concerning the rule that elections need to be universal, it is worth mentioning that the procedure proposed in the infamous “Envelope Bill” prevent participation in the election for Polish citizens living abroad, for people locked back at home because of quarantine, hospital patients in isolations and also voters living elsewhere than at their primary residential address. When speaking about the rule of directness, an exclusively postal vote is an evident contradiction. The right of casting the ballot anonymously has been cancelled by the requirement for the ballots to be sent back with a signature of the voter. And finally, the only candidate who was not obliged to stay in lockdown because of the pandemic and who also had additional opportunities to appear on the channels of the PiS controlled state media, was the incumbent President. The rest of the candidates had no chance to campaign – except via social media – which disqualified these elections from being “equal”.

“The ongoing political situation is contagious and in fact affects negatively the entire political class. Sadly this includes the opposition too.”

The incredible political chaos that the country has been plunged into is distracting the public opinion from the fact that at this point there is very little that the government is doing to support citizens who are losing jobs and incomes. The so-called “anti-crisis shields” that the governmental propaganda has been intensively advertising and which are subsequently amended again and again (Poland is at the third amendment already), prove to be insufficient. They are incomplete in their conception and they showcase that the government turns a blind eye on entire groups of citizens. The opposition parliamentary group of the Left not only keeps criticising them from the Lower Chamber’s speakers’ podium, but also tries to counteract them with proposals for alternative laws. Those proposals, however, are not even put to vote by the unilateral decision of the Speaker of the House (who is from PiS).

The difficult situation caused by the pandemic is further complicated in Poland by those who govern the country, who use the circumstances to introduce via a backdoor a profound ideological revolution. In April, the Sejm once again debated a proposal to further restrict the right to abortion in parallel with discussing a draft bill that would criminalise sexual education. This caused a stir among opposition and the public opinion. Especially because it was impossible to mobilise and rally against these draft bills as the pandemic regulations prohibited public gatherings. The politicians of PiS respond that they needed to proceed with those projects because they need to abide by the Book of Rules and Procedures of the Sejm. It dictates the time framework for taking into consideration citizen’s initiatives, and the proposals for the bills above (conveniently) fell under that category. Of course, this is the same Book that the politicians of the United Right chronically ignore, when they see it fit, since they took over the power in 2015.

The ongoing political situation is contagious and in fact affects negatively the entire political class. Sadly this includes the opposition too. The governing side accuses the opposition and the local governments to have disturbed the process and to hence be the real cause of the current disgrace. Local government are in the government’s focus because they refused to transfer to the National Post all the personal data regarding voters in the constituencies under their supervision. This way they rebelled against the Minister in charge of the organisation of the election, who tries to force them into compliance. The viewers of the public media, which for years now have been subordinated to PiS, are therefore convinced that there was a good will on the side of the government, but that the opposition, ‘as always’, misbehaved by acting recklessly. This message is not vanishing in a social vacuum, but finds fertile ground consolidating the electorate of the United Right. The voters it entails unswervingly declare support for the governing majority. On the other hand, the citizens critical to the government, President and Jarosław Kaczyński do not spare the pro-democratic opposition, driven, however, by other reasons. The left wing and centrist parties are being criticised for their lack of executive powers, for their lack of coherence and for their lack of a common strategy ahead of the presidential elections – which will have to take place one day. Should the opposition win them, perhaps there is a chance to stop the PiS’ actions, which are non-democratic and and in contradiction with the rule of law. But sadly, at this point, it does not really seem that such a victory is in sight.

Photo Credit Shutterstock – wybory prezydenckie means presidential election

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