Poland’s parliament has backed a plan to conduct the presidential election on 10 May by postal ballot because of the coronavirus pandemic, raising concerns among democracy advocates that the vote will not be fair or fully transparent.
The lower house, or Sejm, where the ruling nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS) has a majority, gave its preliminary approval to the plan late on Monday (6 April).
PiS said the move would enable Poles to vote safely as the country battles the coronavirus. Poland has so far reported 4,666 cases and 129 deaths, and the government expects infections to peak in May or June.
Critics accuse PiS of putting its political interests ahead of public health concerns. President Andrzej Duda, an ally of PiS who is seeking a fresh five-year term, is currently ahead in opinion polls.
The rights arm of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said holding a ballot during a pandemic, when public gatherings are banned, made it impossible for candidates to campaign freely and was contrary to international standards.
“I urge lawmakers to think carefully about the consequences of their decision,” the head of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, said in a statement.
“They need to consider the fact that in introducing postal voting on a large scale so close to the election, it may not be possible to ensure the secrecy and equality of the vote.”
The Warsaw office of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights said the legislation contravened the Polish constitution by seeking to change electoral rules too close to a vote.
“The draft … should be considered only as an attempt to secure the particular interests of the authorities at the expense of citizens,” it said.
The upper chamber of parliament, the Senate, which is controlled by the opposition, now has 30 days to consider the bill, though it effectively cannot reject it. It has suggested it may take the full 30 days, meaning final approval by Sejm may only come just days before the election.
The speaker of the Senate, a centrist who is also a physician by training, expressed public health concerns.
“According to epidemiologists, we will have 40,000 people infected, in the optimistic scenario. The pessimistic one assumes half a million,” said Tomasz Grodzki.
The health ministry has said it would give a clearer assessment by mid-April of whether the pandemic made it impossible to vote on 10 May.
The PiS proposal envisages ballot papers being sent out to Polish households so that voters can make their choice on 10 May before returning them to be counted.
PiS suggested that the speaker of the lower house, currently a member of the ruling party, could move the election by several days, within existing constitutional limits.
If PiS wanted to change the date by a longer period, it would either have to change the constitution – for which it would need opposition support – or announce a state of “natural disaster” due to the pandemic, a step it wants to avoid.
Winning the presidential election would enable PiS to cement its reforms of the judiciary, which the European Union has said subvert the rule of law. A president hostile to PiS could block its efforts.
PiS won a fresh four-year parliamentary mandate last year, helped by a generous welfare spending programme and strong economic growth. However, a looming recession prompted by the coronavirus crisis could damage public support for the party.