Poland set to hold elections in midst of pandemic  

The European Commission is about to unveil the EU's new Strategy on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities for the next decade, Krzysztof Pater writes about one of the areas where discrimination is still acutely felt – the right to vote, effectively denied to many persons with disabilities around Europe. [EPA/JAKUB KACZMARCZYK]

**This article has been updated with Tusk’s call for boycott.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, a negative Supreme Court opinion, and criticism from the OSCE, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) seems determined to hold the presidential elections by postal voting in May.

The bill presented by the Polish parliament is raising judicial doubts. The Supreme Court has already assessed it as unconstitutional but everything indicates that for the first time in their democratic history, Poles will choose their head of state only through a system of postal voting.

The tentative date is 10 May and opinion polls show incumbent president Andrzej Duda, a PiS ally and longtime frontrunner, rising in popularity with some showing him taking more than 50% of the vote, enough to win without having to compete in a second round on 24 May.

But surveys also indicate voter turnout could be as low as 30%.

“In the proposed form, elections will be neither direct, nor equal, nor universal,” professor Adam Strzembosz, the former Supreme Court president said in an interview with EURACTIV.pl.

He pointed out that due to regular breaches of the rule of law by the government, the credibility of electoral results would be under question, and the Supreme Court’s ruling on Monday (27 April) only proves it.

The government shifted the responsibility for organising the ballot from the National Electoral Commission (PKW) to the Polish Post.

This provoked concerns about safeguarding privacy as the Post has to collect citizens’ personal data in order to prepare the voters’ lists. The head of PKW stated that “as an apolitical body, we lack competence to judge legislative decisions”.

Nonetheless, voting ballots are already being printed. “The act is not enforced yet, but we assume it will be,” said Deputy Prime Minister Jacek Sasin.

OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) – that has its office in Warsaw – issued an opinion on Monday criticizing the bill as incompatible with international standards of democratic elections.

Meanwhile, former European Council president Donald Tusk appealed Tuesday (28 April) for a boycott of the upcoming election in his native Poland.

In a video message on Twitter, he said the postal vote the government has proposed “has nothing to do with an election” and carries health risks amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Andrzej Duda in full campaign mode 

Social distancing makes the electoral process unequal. While others run their campaigns merely online, in an uphill battle against state media supportive of PiS, Duda travels across the country, posing with medical staff just before making speeches addressed to the nation, which have become a regular occurrence.

Most of his rivals pledged to put in a fight nevertheless, with Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz from the Polish People’s Party becoming the strongest voice of the opposition with almost 17% support in recent polls.

The only female candidate, Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska, is calling for a “boycott of the elections as they breach the constitution”. However, it’s very likely that this is exactly what PiS leader  Jarosław Kaczyński wants, as polls suggest that in case of low turnout, Duda would win in the first round.

“If there won’t be an election, we would face a deep constitutional crisis,” Duda argued recently, adding that as his term ends on 5 August, “postponing the elections could leave the state without a president”.

Declaring the state of emergency might be a solution, as he would then remain in office until the elections are held, at a later date.

According to the latest survey conducted by IBRIS for Rzeczpospolita, 32% of Poles would postpone elections by a year. More than a quarter of respondents opted for the current date, given the choice of May (25,4%), August (5.6%), September (5.8%), October (10.4%), November (5.9%), and December (3.7%).

“It turns out that it is not a matter of whether someone is afraid of falling ill, but it’s the good old political divisions that determine whether we are in favour of the elections now or prefer to postpone them,” said the head of IBRiS, Marcin Duma.

In mid-April, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the response of EU countries to the spread of coronavirus. One of its points referred to the planned presidential elections in Poland as “steps completely incompatible with European values”.

As of Tuesday (28 April), Poland has 12,000 reported coronavirus cases and slightly more than 500 deaths, less than other big EU countries, but with 8,000 tests per one million people Poland’s testing capacity is seen as low – the country is at a lowly 22nd place inside the EU.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki is going about relaxation measures very cautiously. Non-essential movement is still prohibited, and schools are out almost till the end of May.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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