Poland’s foreign ministry has admitted that, due to the coronavirus epidemic, it may be “impossible” for some Poles abroad to vote in the presidential elections scheduled for 10 May. Some countries, including the US, UK and Germany, have not permitted the organisation of in-person voting.

The organisation of the elections has aroused great controversy in Poland. All opposition candidates have called for them to be postponed, and polls indicate that a large majority of the public agree.

The government continues to insist they can go ahead, but is seeking to conduct them entirely by postal voting. That solution, and the manner in which it has been pursued, has been criticised by the EU, OSCE and Poland’s own electoral commission.

EU, OSCE and Poland’s own electoral commission voice concern over holding elections amid epidemic

As well as concerns over whether elections can be safely and fairly conducted in Poland itself, some have also warned that Polish citizens abroad may be effectively disenfranchised by coronavirus restrictions in their countries of residence.

The difficulties in organising the election for Poles abroad have been exposed in a draft ordinance prepared by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is responsible for facilitating voting outside Poland.

The ministry admits that it has not yet created voting districts in the UK, Germany or the USA, which have among the largest Polish diasporas in the world. It says that these countries “expressly did not agree to the organisation of elections by in-person voting”.

“An in-depth analysis showed that elections in some countries will be very difficult and, in many, impossible,” admits the ministry in the document, which was reported this week by news website Onet.

According to Radio ZET, difficulties include fewer people willing to sit on electoral commissions, opposition from building administrators to housing electoral commission offices, and difficulties in acquiring the materials needed for the election, including committee seals and ballot papers. There are also fears that the lockdown imposed in many countries will prevent the free movement of potential voters. 

Polish government pushes through bill allowing May elections to be held entirely by post

To complicate matters further, the ministry’s organisational work so far has been based on the existing electoral law. However, if the government’s proposal to introduce an entirely postal vote is passed, that could allow more Poles abroad to vote, the foreign ministry told Onet, though it admitted it is “not possible to predict” if and how each foreign country would allow voting to take place.

The bill to introduce all-postal voting was passed by the lower house of parliament – the Sejm, which is controlled by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party – last week. But the opposition-controlled upper house, the Senate, can now delay it for up to 30 days – meaning it could be introduced just days before the scheduled election on 10 May.

In that case, it is possible that all Poles abroad could effectively be barred from voting because they would be required to register at least 14 days before the election, but could only do so after the law is passed, reports Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.

In a letter published today by the Financial Times, the Polish Ambassador to London, Arkady Rzegocki, defended the organisation of postal elections, saying they would the “safest solution” and “enable the whole of Polish society to participate in the election and ensure constitutional equality for all.” 

However, international Polish organisations have expressed concerns about the plans to hold the election. At the end of March, the oldest Polish diaspora group in Great Britain, the Federation of Poles in Great Britain, called on the government to postpone the vote completely.

It warned that holding an election in current conditions could “undermine the important participation of the Polish community in the election of the President of the Republic of Poland […] and deprive [Poles abroad] of the[ir] role in the civic life” of their homeland.

Speaking this week to Onet, the federation’s chairman, Włodzimierz Mier-Jędrzejowicz, said they still had “serious concerns” about the ability to hold the election safety, and again appealed for it to be postponed. He noted that, as well as concerns over the practical organisation of the vote, the inability of candidates to campaign amid the lockdown was also a problem.

“We are afraid that during a pandemic, candidates would not have sufficient opportunity to present their campaigns to local voters. In this situation, we are facing a serious reduction in voter turnout, which would not meet the requirements of healthy democracy,” he continued.

Mier-Jędrzejowicz also ruled out the possibility of the vote taking place digitally, pointing out that many older people do not have access to the internet or are unable to use technology.

Poland cannot hold free and fair elections during the coronavirus crisis. They should be postponed

Of the estimated 900,000 Poles living in the UK, around 100,000 registered to participate in last year’s Polish parliamentary elections, making them the largest electorate outside of Poland.

In total, 314,000 Poles participated in those elections from abroad, with the largest number voting for the opposition Civic Coalition (39%) ahead of PiS (21%) in second place and the Left (11%) in third, reports Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.

Meanwhile in Scotland, Michael Russel, the cabinet secretary for the constitution, European affairs and foreign policy, said it would be impossible to organise electoral commissions there.

Responding to a letter from Scottish Labour Party MP Claire Baker, the co-chair of a cross-party parliamentary group on Polish affairs, Russell added that the organisation of electoral commissions would violate British regulations regarding the coronavirus lockdown and cause “unnecessary risk”. 

In reply, Baker emphasised that she was “deeply concerned” by the plans for the election, adding that, if it went ahead, “serious questions” would be raised “about the health risk to voters and the legality of the result,” reported Onet.

Main image credit: Patryk Ogorzalek/Agencja Gazeta

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