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Here’s What’s (Not) Happening This Weekend: A Presidential Election in Poland

The government said it was impossible, and the opposition said it was inevitable. Now it has happened.  The presidential election scheduled for this Sunday, May 10, in Poland has been delayed, probably until July 12, as the parties of the governing coalition finally ended a tense game of political chicken just four days before the election was scheduled to take place.

The struggle over whether to delay the election has been a serious test for the strength of the largest and arguably most successful of the new democracies in Central Europe, and the government’s attempts to forge ahead with the election despite the COVID-19 pandemic represented a serious political gamble. In the end, it was the threat of collapse of the governing coalition and the potential for snap parliamentary elections that forced the government to back down and propose the delay.    

How Did We Get Here?

Poland was the first European country to commit to holding national elections in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. This decision, which was made on February 5, came after the World Health Organization’s declaration that COVID-19 posed a global emergency, but before the extent of the global spread of the virus was fully realized.  Other European countries have taken a far more cautious approach: The UK postponed municipal elections for a full year; France has delayed the second round of its municipal elections and the German state of Bavaria transferred the second round of its municipal elections to a mail-in-ballot system.

With incumbent President Andrzej Duda riding high in the polls, the Polish government sought to take maximum advantage of their advantageous position and forge ahead with the election. In early April, the lower house of parliament passed legislation proposed by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party that would have allowed the elections to take place entirely by postal ballot – something never tried before.

Critics inside the ruling coalition and opposition immediately lambasted the decision, questioning the legality of the measure and the government’s ability to organize safe and inclusive elections for a country of almost 40 million people in just over a month, particularly considering that responsibility for the organization of the elections would then largely fall to the Polish postal system.  The government then replaced the equivalent of the postmaster general and moved forward rapidly to prepare the logistics of a nationwide postal ballot while the bill moved to the upper house.

However, the opposition-controlled Senate had no interest in approving the legislation, and instead let it languish for a full month. On May 6, it finally rejected the bill, sending it back to the lower house after delaying official notification until the very last possible moment, provoking a final showdown in the lower house. The PiS-led coalition simply did not have the votes to secure passage without risking the junior coalition partner bringing down the government, and the coalition party leaders called a press conference to announce the delay.  The Supreme Court is expected to confirm the delay.

What Comes Next?

While a formal date for the delayed election has not been set, July 12th is rumored to be the likely date. Like other Central Europe governments that instituted COVID-related lockdowns early, Poland is moving quickly to lift public restrictions related to the pandemic. If this pattern continues, the country may well return to many normal patterns of life by July. In any event, the agreement to delay comes with a commitment to use the postal ballot for the election, and the government had already moved very far forward in preparations for a postal ballot had the elections taken place on May 10 as planned.

The Law and Justice-led government has been accused by the opposition and international critics of reneging on its commitment to democratic values and principles, and controversial attempts to alter the makeup of the judiciary have provoked rebukes from the European Council and the European Court of Justice. Nonetheless, the government remains popular and won majorities in both the European Parliament and national parliamentary elections in 2019. 

With no polling data yet in hand, it is difficult to predict what impact the delayed election will have on the outcome. Going into the campaign, President Duda was highly popular and was favored to win, perhaps in the first round. He studiously maintained distance from the wrangling over postponement of the election – a strategy that may protect him from negative fallout. However, the opposition will surely criticize the PiS-led effort to hold the elections in the middle of the pandemic and will do its best to ensure that Duda’s popularity suffers collateral damage.

The Government Versus Governance: Lessons from Poland for Other Democracies

With global trust in political parties at an all-time low, parliaments have struggled to find ways to continue governing and serving citizens. The unprecedented pressures brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic may only deepen this trend, and highlight the urgent need for political parties to recommit to core principles and work across party lines where necessary to protect democratic institutions. This should include non-partisan revisions of existing electoral codes and constitutional provisions where relevant to enable parliaments to convene virtually, and to enable elections to proceed in a fair and transparent manner during this and any subsequent crisis.  As voting-rights advocates in the US and the older democracies of Western Europe argue and have demonstrated, there is nothing inherently undemocratic about an all-postal ballot.  It need not, therefore, be undemocratic in Poland.

While the story is far from over and much will happen in the run-up to Poland’s new election date, one thing is certain: how and when the elections are carried out – more than the actual result – will tell us a lot about the trajectory of Polish democracy.