Three new polls have shown that a big majority of the public want presidential elections due to take place in May to be postponed. But leading figures from the ruling party, including its leader Jarosław Kaczyński, insist that they should go ahead.
Meanwhile, local by-elections took place on Sunday with strict sanitary measures in place. Much attention was paid to turnout, and the indications are that it was high, albeit only in the five relatively small municipalities where voting took place.
Poland has introduced tough and early measures to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, including closing all schools until Easter, suspending international flights, banning foreigners from entry, and prohibiting gatherings of more than 50 people.
Candidates in the presidential election, the first round of which takes place on 10 May, have suspended all major public events, with campaigning largely grinding to a halt. All five opposition candidates have called for a the election to be delayed, reported Dziennik Gazeta Prawna. But the ruling party, whose candidate is incumbent Andrzej Duda, has opposed a postponement, which would require declaring a state of emergency.
Critics argue that holding the election – with millions of voters coming to polling stations – would be a risk to public health. Some people may also have difficulty voting due to compulsory quarantine orders or fear of infection. While opposition candidates have had to effectively suspend campaigning, the incumbent, Andrzej Duda, has been able to maintain visibility while leading the response to the crisis.
Majority want presidential vote cancelled, but turnout high in local by-elections
On Friday, an IBP poll for Super Express found that 70% of respondents were in favour of delaying the elections, while only 12% wanted them to go ahead. On Sunday, an SW Research survey for Rzeczpospolita showed the figures as 62% and 17% respectively. Finally, a United Survey poll for RMF FM and Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, published today, found 72% wanting a postponement and 16% thinking they should go ahead.
In the latter poll, 35% of respondents said that they would definitely not vote if presidential elections took place this Sunday, while a further 20% said they would probably not do so. One third say they they definitely would vote and 7% that they probably would.
Meanwhile, on Sunday local by-elections were held in five municipalities to choose mayors and councillors. Strict sanitary measures were put in place, with plastic gloves and masks available for voters and staff, disposable pens being used, hand sanitiser made available in polling stations, and temperature checks taking place.
Several people expressed opposition to holding the by-elections. All members of one election commission resigned, with last-minute volunteers having to be found to replace them. “These elections should not take place. Many residents have said so,” according to the mayor of one village, quoted by Wirtualna Polska.
However, despite these concerns, turnout ranged from 43% in Smyków to 10% in Wierzchlas, compared with the usual low figure of 6-10%. The result was “very impressive”, Tomasz Grzelewski, the spokesman for Poland’s electoral commission, told the Polish Press Agency.
Those percentages are derived from small absolute numbers. In Smyków, for example, 43% turnout in practice meant 75 out of 174 eligible voters casting their ballot, reported RMF FM. The largest vote was the election of a mayor in the town of Jarosław, where 3,000 went to the polls – a turnout of 30%.
Kaczynski: “presidential elections should be held”
Reacting to the turnout figures, Jarosław Kaczyński – the chairman of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party and Poland’s de facto leader – said they “confirm that conducting presidential eletions in absolutely possible” under current conditions, reported the Polish Press Agency today.
Previously, speaking to RMF FM on Saturday in his first interview during the coronavirus crisis, Kaczyński argued that, although Poland has introduced a state of epidemic emergency to deal with coronavirus, there are no grounds to introduce a general state of emergency, as would be necessary in order to postpone the elections.
The PiS chairman also expressed his own personal view that the elections “should be held”. He rejected the idea that the opposition were disadvantaged by campaign restrictions. In fact, argued Kaczyński, the ban on large public events hindered Duda, PiS’s candidate, the most because “no one has such great contact with people, no one is as great a speaker as the current president”.
Kaczyński’s words echoed those of the prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, who last week said that “the elections should take place on the planned date”. On Sunday, however, deputy prime minister Jarosław Gowin became the first member of the government to suggest that a delay may be necessary.
Speaking to broadcaster TVN, he said that for now Poland should “stick to the constitutional date of the presidential election”. At the moment, the main focus should be on supporting public health and the economy during the crisis.
However, “in two or three weeks” it will be possible to assess “whether the election will be possible”, added Gowin. If things are “returning to functioning normally”, then elections can go ahead. But if not, they could be postponed.
The problem, though, is that the virus may be a problem for months or even over a year, meaning there may be “no good moment for these elections”, said the deputy prime minister. He suggested that, if they are postponed, a new date in spring 2021 would be best.
Tusk: “only a lunatic or criminal would hold elections”
On Saturday, Donald Tusk – the former European Council president and now head of the European People’s Party – predicted that the elections would not take place, saying that “only a lunatic or criminal could suggest to people to go to polling stations” in current circumstances.
Tusk, who is currently in quarantine after showing some symptoms of the virus, had a week earlier called for Poland’s elections to be postponed, saying that a time of crisis requires “unity and solidarity”, something that cannot be achieved during a “campaign battle”.
Now Tusk, who is a former Polish prime minister and bitter rival of Kaczyński, says he is certain that “even a government that I have a very bad opinion of, even a party as hungry for power as PiS, will not risk…putting thousands of people in danger of losing their health or lives”.
In the interview with Gazeta Wyborcza, Tusk also argued that, because of the “drastically unequal conditions of campaigning” during the current shutdown, it would be “easy to legally challenge” the result of the election.
An MEP from Tusk’s former Civic Platform (PO) party, Janina Ochojska, tweeted on Sunday that holding elections during the coronavirus epidemic would result in deaths.
Meanwhile, a senator from PO, Jacek Bury, has launched a petition calling on the authorities to allow electronic voting, which would help people “safely participate in the elections”. But it seems unlikely that such a system could be implemented in the less than 50 days until the election, notes Onet news service.
Main image credit: Arkadiusz Stankiewicz/Agencja Gazeta
Daniel Tilles is editor-in-chief of Notes from Poland and assistant professor of history at the Pedagogical University of Krakow. He has written on Polish affairs for a wide range of publications, including Foreign Policy, POLITICO Europe, The Independent and Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.