Poland’s government has moved ahead with preparations for entirely postal presidential elections due for 10 May, despite the relevant legislation allowing them to take place not yet having become law.
Critics point out that the authorities are acting unlawfully by making such arrangements – including printing and preparing to post ballot papers – without any legal basis for doing so. The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party argues that it has a constitutional duty to ensure elections are held, and claims that the legislative delays are the opposition’s fault.
Meanwhile, some local authorities are refusing to cooperate with the preparations, which they see as illegal. There also remain legal and practical doubts as to whether and how Polish citizens abroad will be able to cast their votes.
Even the date of the elections remains uncertain, with proposals being discussed to delay the vote until late this year or even to postpone it for up to two years. Much depends on negotiations between various parties, with Jarosław Gowin, who recently resigned as deputy prime minister in protest against holding elections in May, seeking to broker a compromise.
Letters of the law
Up to now, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has insisted that May’s presidential elections should go ahead. It has, however, proposed that voting be conducted entirely by post, to mitigate the risk of worsening the epidemic.
A bill that would allow such elections to take place was passed on 6 April by the Sejm, the lower house of parliament, where PiS has a majority. It is now in the opposition-controlled Senate, which can delay it for up to 30 days, meaning until 6 May. The weaker upper house cannot, however, prevent its passage.
Despite the bill to introduce postal voting not yet passing into law, Jacek Sasin, a deputy prime minister, told TVN24 on Wednesday that polling cards were already being printed. He argued that this was the only way to ensure that they reach voters before the electoral deadline, adding that they would be posted before 6 May even if the bill still has not passed.
Sasin also claimed that the move was legally justified on the basis that the election date has been set by the speaker of the Sejm and that a recent economic package passed by parliament charges state-owned companies (such as the postal service and printing works) with preparation for the elections.
When it was pointed out that the authorities are printing ballot papers on the basis of existing legislation, and they will therefore not be valid once the postal-voting law is passed, Sasin said that the government will later issue approval for the already printed design.
In response to the interview, the opposition speaker of the Senate, Tomasz Grodzki, called the actions “illegal, to say the least”, reports Wirtualna Polska. Meanwhile, a number of local authorities have come to the same conclusion, and are refusing to cooperate in organising the vote.
Last night, the national postal service sent a request to local authorities asking them to hand over the personal data of voters required for the elections, including names, addresses and identification numbers. Provincial governors, who are appointed by prime minister, have also reportedly asked local authorities to comply.
Many local leaders have turned down the requests, arguing that until the bill passes into law, they have no legal grounding. The mayor of Gdańsk tweeted images of an “anonymous email” she had received at 2:26 a.m. asking for voters’ details. She said she was reporting it to prosecutors as a potential crime.
O 2.26 przyszedł anonimowy e-mail o treści którą załączam poniżej. Składam zawiadomienie o możliwości popełnienia przestępstwa do prokuratury… Nie będę uczestniczyć w łamaniu prawa! pic.twitter.com/wNzkAQG0Qb
— Aleksandra Dulkiewicz (@Dulkiewicz_A) April 23, 2020
Another issue that has arisen is that the all-postal vote would require special post boxes across Poland, where voters could safely and securely deposit their ballots. For now it is unclear how they will be organised and guarded. The Ministry of State Assets, which is responsible for the procedure, has also not clarified how votes will be collected, verified and counted.
Adding to the problem, on Thursday the Association of Polish Cities rejected a request by the postal services to provide ballot boxes, saying that it will need them for the 10 May in-person elections that are still scheduled to be held until the postal-election legislation becomes law.
When postal staff deliver the 30 million ballots for Poland's postal elections, they've reportedly been told that, if someone doesn't have a mailbox, to simply put the package on their fence. Then it's "no longer our problem" what happens to it https://t.co/h4U9b29SNg
— Daniel Tilles (@danieltilles1) April 22, 2020
Several other complications may await ahead. For one, citizens mindful of the fact that they have received a polling card which at the time of its issuance pertained to a non-existent election, may request that a legally issued voting card is resent to them. Authorities will then have three days to grant this lawful request – a task that would prove impossible if the postal-election law is not passed until after 6 May.
There are also other legal doubts pertaining to the election. The Constitutional Tribunal has previously ruled that significant changes to the electoral code must be made at least six months before an election.
A number of organisations, including the EU, OSCE and the National Electoral Commission, have previously expressed doubts as to whether the elections would meet international standards.
The European Parliament has adopted a resolution criticising Poland's May elections, saying they may threaten public health, not be free & fair, and violate the Polish constitution. PiS says it's "another manifestation of Poland's stigmatisation by the EU" https://t.co/qgXYHhppBC
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) April 17, 2020
On Thursday, the European Commissioner for Justice, Didier Reynders, said he is “very worried by the organisation of the election”. He is “ready to hold another debate on the issue in relation to Article 7,” the EU’s rule-of-law proceedings, which can result in the ultimate sanction of a country having its EU voting rights suspended.
Meanwhile, the Polish Society of Epidemiology and Infectious Diseases has issued a statement saying that disinfecting voting packs “will be hard or even impossible” and therefore the elections “carried a risk of intensified spread of infections”.
There also remain major doubts as to whether and how Poles abroad will be able to participate in the elections. The Polish foreign ministry, which is responsible for organising voting abroad, recently admitted that it will be “impossible” in “many countries”, including places with large Polish populations such as the US, UK and Germany.
This position was echoed yesterday by a Polish diplomat, speaking anonymous to RMF24, who said that organising postal voting in the US by 10 May would be logistically impossible, while opening traditional polling stations would be “madness”. However, today the Polish embassy in London wrote that it was doing all it could to ensure that postal elections could be conducted in the UK.
From pillar to post
Meanwhile, opposition politicians have been discussing various ways to thwart the government’s plan. They have sought to enlist the help of Gowin, who quit the government in protest over the May elections, although the party he leads, Agreement, remains in the ruling coalition.
Gowin today met with the leaders of the agrarian Polish People’s Party (PSL) and the Kukiz’15 party – two opposition groups – to “find a compromise” that “could postpone the election till August”, reported Polsat news.
“In my opinion it is not possible to hold elections on 10 May. There is simply not enough time,” said Gowin. He added that he will now hold talks with the leadership of the ruling United Right alliance, which includes PiS and Agreement, as well as United Poland.
Gowin had previously sought to delay the elections by two years, something that would entail a change to the constitution. His proposal was submitted to parliament by PiS, but has not received opposition support.
Earlier this week the main parliamentary opposition, Civic Coalition (KO), unveiled its plan to push the government to announce a state of natural disaster, which would automatically delay the election. They want such a state to be continued long enough for the elections to be delayed by a year.
Opposition leader Borys Budka claimed that, with the support of Gowin, he could muster a parliamentary majority to push through KO’s plan. The two met on Monday.
The PiS-led ruling camp currently has 235 MPs, just above the 231 required for a majority. If Gowin and some of the 18 MPs from his party were to rebel, that could shift the balance. However, reports have suggested that some within Agreement are not keen to follow Gowin’s lead.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Left, which has 49 MPs, has made clear it does not wish to endorse any deal made between other opposition parties and Gowin.
Meanwhile according to a new poll by Kantar, of those planning to vote, 59% declared that they would support Andrzej Duda, the PiS-backed incumbent. Such a majority would hand Duda a first-round victory, precluding the need for a run-off between the top two candidates.
Trailing far behind in second place in the poll were Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz of PSL and Szymon Hołownia, an independent, each with 7%. In joint third were Krzysztof Bosak (5%), of the far-right Confederation, and Robert Biedroń (5%), the candidate of the Left.
Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska, who as KO’s candidate began as the favourite to challenge Duda but has now called on her supporters to boycott the election, received only 4%.
Critics of the May election have argued that not only is it a threat to health, a logistical impossibility and unlawful, but also that it will not be fair and democratic given that opposition candidates have been unable to campaign while Duda has retained high visibility by helping to lead the government’s response to the crisis.
Main image credits: Jakub Orzechowski/Agencja Gazeta
Maria Wilczek is deputy editor of Notes from Poland. She also contributes regularly to The Economist and Al Jazeera, and has also written for The Times, Politico Europe, The Spectator and Gazeta Wyborcza.