Poland’s abandoned presidential election, which was scheduled for 10 May but took place without any voting, still generated high costs. Private broadcaster TVN has revealed that invoices issued in connection with the preparations amounted to almost 70 million zloty of costs for the state postal service, Poczta Polska.
The run-up to the planned election was fraught with chaos and controversy, as the Polish government pushed ahead with preparations for a fully postal vote before relevant legislation had been passed. Many local authorities refused to cooperate, on the basis that doing so without the law in place would be illegal.
TVN, an American-owned station often critical of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, now reports, based on internal postal service documents, including invoices, contracts and correspondence relating to the election, that the bill for those preparations ran to tens of millions of zloty. It has ascertained that 26 million zloty of the total costs have already been paid.
According to the broadcaster’s report, the two largest contracts were with the companies EDC Expert Direct Communication and Prografix. The former was contracted fora net amount of 24.64 million zloty to produce 16 million election ballot packages – of which the company has already received 7 million zloty in prepayments in two transfers.
Prografix, meanwhile, charged a net amount of 25.28 million zloty for a similar order – and has already received 12 million zloty in two payments. This contract also specifies a settlement date of 3 July 2020.
Poczta Polska also signed a contract with another company, Caro Piotr Krajewski, for the delivery of ballot boxes, with a net value of 1.915 million zloty, which has been paid in full. It has likewise already paid 4.18 million zloty net for sacks – which, according to TVN, were to transport the ballot papers – from PSO Maskpol SA.
Piotr Moniuszko, chairman of the Free Trade Union of Postal Workers, told TVN that the latter deal was an “absurd” purchase: “the post office has been moving away from using sacks for several years. Instead, plastic crates are used for packing parcels. I have no idea why we need so many bags.”
He added that the contracts were “wasted money” and questioned who would cover the costs. According to TVN, the latest available financial statement for Poczta Polska shows that the company recorded a loss of nearly 70 million zloty in 2018.
The national postal service has refused to give additional details on TVN’s findings, with spokesperson Justyna Siwek telling the broadcaster that the estimated costs were confidential.
In response to TVN’s questions regarding the date and amount of their contract with the postal service, the Ministry of State Assets press department also said that the ministry had not finalised any agreement regarding the organisation of the election. Speaking to RMF24, the head of the ministry, Jacek Sasin, said that normally the costs would be “regulated by the state budget”.
“The opposition is constantly boasting that the election did not take place, and that this is their great success,” he added. “Maybe they will share the costs?” Sasin also defended the plans for the election, saying that if the government had not prepared for the vote, the opposition may have brought it before a tribunal for hindering the democratic process.
The deputy PM says that ballots for postal elections will be printed and sent to voters even though the relevant law has not been passed because "we assume it will be in force".
He tells local governments they "must" give voter data to the post office https://t.co/gsOS6tllKl
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) April 24, 2020
The presidential election in May was mired in controversy, as the government pushed ahead with plans to hold the vote, despite the escalating coronavirus epidemic. On 6 April, after a tumultuous day in parliament – which saw the deputy prime minister Jarosław Gowin quit the government and the ruling party initially lose a key vote – a proposal to hold the elections exclusively by postal vote was accepted by the lower-house Sejm.
However, it was then delayed by the upper-house and opposition-controlled Senate until 8 May.
According to the bill, Poczta Polska, the national postal service, would implement the postal vote by preparing and delivering ballot papers. On 3 April, the head of the postal service was removed and replaced by the deputy defence minister, who initiated preparations for the election, despite relevant legislation allowing them to take place not yet having become law.
In mid-April, Sasin told TVN24 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.
Sasin also claimed that the move was legally justified on the basis that the election date had been set by the speaker of the Sejm and that an economic package passed by parliament charged state-owned companies (such as the postal service and printing works) with preparation for the elections.
The national postal service also 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. However, many local leaders turned down the requests, arguing that until the bill passes into law, they have no legal grounding. There were also legal and practical doubts as to whether and how Polish citizens abroad will be able to cast their votes.
Critics argued that moving to universal postal voting just a month before the election was a logistical risk and 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.
According to the OSCE/ODIHR, the push to hold a postal vote on 10 May “may place an unreasonable burden on the implementing bodies and jeopardise important principles of democratic elections”. Polls also revealed that a majority of Poles wanted the elections to be delayed.
PiS, however, argued that it had a constitutional duty to ensure elections are held, and claimed that any legislative delays were the opposition’s fault. The party also argued that postal voting would be a safe and efficient option.
In April, the main parliamentary opposition, Civic Coalition (KO) proposed that the government announce a state of natural disaster, which would automatically delay the election, for up to a year. However, PiS argued that this state of emergency would not be justified constitutionally.
Many, however, believed that the party wanted elections to take place as soon as possible because PiS’s candidate, incumbent president Andrzej Duda, was most likely to win under current conditions.
Once the coronavirus lockdown is lifted, opposition candidates will be able to resume campaigning, and the economic and social consequences of the epidemic will be more keenly felt, possibly causing Duda’s chances to diminish.
Eventually, however, Gowin’s rebellion meaning PiS did not have enough votes to push through the legislation enabling a postal vote on 10 May, an agreement was reached between Gowin and PiS chairman Jarosław Kaczyński to effectively void the election and then call a new one.
The government has since proposed new rules for the election, introducing a bill in mid-May which would allow a mixture of in-person and postal voting to take place. However, it will not be possible to reuse the ballots printed for the first election, because Poland’s main opposition has replaced its presidential candidate.
A new election date has yet to be announced, with PiS, which has a majority in the lower-house Sejm, locked in a disagreement with the opposition, which controls the upper-house Senate, over when and how the election should be called.
The opposition Senate speaker says there are "constitutional doubts" over the government's proposed law facilitating elections this summer
He says a state of emergency may be necessary, or the resignation or expiration of the term of the current president https://t.co/Sthbl5BpnV
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) May 26, 2020
Main image credit: Robert Robaszewski / Agencja Gazeta
Juliette Bretan is a freelance journalist covering Polish and Eastern European current affairs and culture. Her work has featured on the BBC World Service, and in CityMetric, The Independent, Ozy, New Eastern Europe and Culture.pl.