Amid a dramatic day in parliament – which saw the deputy prime minister quit the government and the ruling party initially lose a key vote – legislators eventually pushed through a controversial bill that would allow May’s presidential elections to be held exclusively by postal vote amid the coronavirus lockdown.
The proposed legislation also empowers the speaker of the lower-house Sejm, from the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, to postpone the elections by a week, giving postal services more time to organise the vote. Opposition parties, who want the elections postponed, have been united in condemning the new measures.
At the start of proceedings, Jarosław Gowin – deputy prime minister and leader of one of PiS’s junior coalition partners – had announced his resignation from government, saying that he could not support holding elections during an epidemic.
Subsequently, in an early afternoon vote on PiS’s legislation allowing an all-postal election proposal was rejected, the ruling party suffered an unprecedented defeat, with 228 MPs voting in favour and exactly the same number against. Among those who failed to vote for it were Gowin and some MPs from his Porozumienie (Agreement) party.
Controversy then emerged after two PiS MPs claimed that they had been unable to vote for the legislation as intended because of problems with the new online voting system, which PiS itself had wanted to introduce despite opposition concerns about its potential technical issues.
The session was initially adjourned until Tuesday, but the speaker, Elżbieta Witek, quickly reversed the decision, announcing that it would resume at 6.30 p.m. on Monday instead.
In the meantime, PiS submitted new legislation similar to that which had been rejected, but with certain changes (given that parliamentary rules forbid re-voting on the same bill). In a second vote in the evening, the amended proposal was accepted, with 230 votes for, all coming from PiS’ parliamentary club.
There were 226 votes against and 2 abstentions. MPs from all opposition parties – ranging from the Left to the far-right Confederation – voted against the legislation. Gowin did not vote.
The legislation now passes to the opposition-controlled Senate. The weaker upper house cannot block the bill, but is able to delay it for up to 30 days. If it chose to do so, and the Sejm was only able to pass the legislation in early May, this would make postal elections that month much more difficult to organise.
The opposition has pointed to a number of irregularities surrounding the bill, including that handwritten signatures on the proposed legislation were made by PiS MPs who were not even in Warsaw at the time. Opposition MPs have said that they will report the case as fraud to the prosecutor’s office.
Sejm. Posłanka z Opolszczyzny głosuje zdalnie ze swojego okręgu. Czy @elzbietawitek i @RyszardTerlecki wytłumaczą jak to się stało, że podpis posłanki widnieje pod nowym projektem ustawy wrzuconym dziś pod obrady po przegranym przez rządzących głosowaniu? #WyboryKopertowe pic.twitter.com/ACL40BnCqD
— Monika WIELICHOWSKA (@MWielichowska) April 6, 2020
Critics have also argued that moving to universal postal voting just a month before the election would be legally questionable, as the Constitutional Tribunal has previously ruled that significant changes to the electoral code must be made at least six months before an election. In 2018, PiS itself restricted the right to vote by post, arguing that it was conducive to electoral fraud.
Under the new legislation, the Sejm speaker is empowered to postpone the election if Poland remains under its current official “epidemic state”. However, they still must be held by 23 May, due to a constitutional requirement that elections take place between 75 and 100 days before the sitting president’s term ends.
In practice, because elections take place on Sundays, this would mean a potential delay until 17 May, a week after the current date. Commentators believe the measure was introduced to give the authorities additional time to organise an unprecedented postal vote. On Friday, the head of the state postal service was removed and replaced by the deputy defence minister.
The new postal voting system, which would apply to both the first and (potential) second rounds, would mean that voters will be mailed voting cards to the address they are registered as voters in. They would then be required to place the votes in special voting postal boxes between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. on the day of the election, reported PAP.
The legislation also removes the requirement for the postal provider, Poczta Polska, to provide other postal services during the period between a week and a day prior to the election when it would be required to deliver postal ballots to Poland’s roughly 30 million eligible voters.
Questions abound whether the postal service could cope with distributing so many voting packs at such short notice. The head of the Postal Workers’ Union has called the idea “absurd”, adding that many postal staff fear the health risks of distributing so many ballots.
Universal postal voting for May's election "is a very bad idea, absurd", says the head of the Postal Workers' Union.
Postal staff fear the health risks of handling millions of votes during the epidemic, and point out they don't have enough manpower anyway https://t.co/6gRQnkuzsI
— Notes from Poland ?? (@notesfrompoland) April 1, 2020
Main image credits: Agnieszka Sadowska/Agencja Gazeta
Maria Wilczek is deputy editor of Notes from Poland. She is a regular writer for The Times, The Economist and Al Jazeera English, and has also featured in Foreign Policy, Politico Europe, The Spectator and Gazeta Wyborcza.