A political crisis is rocking Poland over the presidential elections scheduled for Sunday, May 10, 2020. Poland is under lockdown to limit infection during the coronavirus pandemic. In-person balloting would violate distancing orders. Opposition candidates for the presidency have been unable to campaign, even as incumbent President Andrzej Duda dominates media coverage. Opinion polls suggested that fewer than one-third of voters planned to vote under these conditions.
Not surprisingly, the opposition called for the elections to be delayed. The government refused.
The solution? The governing Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc, or PiS) proposed switching to mail-in postal voting. The party introduced a bill in Parliament on April 6, about a month before the election. PiS refused to delay the elections, on the grounds that the situation may be worse in the autumn, and claimed the pandemic does not constitute an emergency.
The result? After the initial announcement of the postal ballots, it quickly became clear that conflicts, missteps and delays made fully free elections on May 10 impossible, according to the chief of the Polish electoral commission. The election has not been postponed, contrary to news reports. Instead, it now appears an election will take place on May 10 — but will also be invalid, thanks to a questionable compromise between two leading politicians. Poland’s electoral commission then announced it was unable to conduct the election, so that the government would have to hold it instead.
Confused? Here’s what happened.
Both Parliament and the governing party are split
The opposition charges that the PiS postal ballot proposal was yet another antidemocratic manipulation. It wanted the elections to be postponed but not changed in format. Opposition parties have called for a declaration of a “state of natural disaster,” which would allow the government to postpone the elections until August. Opposition parties also charge that the ballot law is open to abuse and fraud. They also allege that PiS is not to be trusted, given their earlier stripping of the courts’ autonomy in the name of “decommunization‚” as well as PiS attacks on the media and political opponents.
PiS itself is now in danger of splitting over the elections. It won in 2015 with a majority that allowed it to rule without coalition partners. When this government was reelected in 2019, however, the upper chamber (the Senate) went to the opposition, and the PiS parliamentary majority is dependent on two electoral alliances, each of which holds 18 seats.
Jaroslaw Gowin, the leader of one of these groups and the minister of education and deputy prime minister in the PiS government, has resigned. He opposes the postal voting law and instead proposed a compromise that would extend Duda’s term by two years and would then lead to another election. PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski was reportedly furious — but could do little because Gowin’s faction holds enough seats to block the proposed election law and other laws.
Duda is favored to win the election, and the office of the president in Poland is far less powerful than in the United States or other presidential systems. Nonetheless, this is a critical election for PiS: Even though the party holds a majority in the Parliament, it does not have the three-fifths majority that would allow it to overturn a presidential veto. With the next parliamentary election scheduled to take place in 2023, an opposition president could stymie government proposals for the next three years.
Postal ballots are no easy fix
Poland’s opposition parties and legal experts questioned the legality of the postal ballot proposal. Voting by mail sidesteps the electoral commission, the official administrator of Polish elections, and instead hands over the administration to the postal office.
The head of the electoral commission, Sylwester Marciniak, emailed local governments asking them to make voters’ personal data available to the post office. Local officials immediately criticized the move, calling it unofficial and possibly illegal. Several local governments, including major cities such as Kraków, announced they would refuse to comply with the request, citing concerns over data privacy and the legality of the request. The opposition also charges that it is illegal to organize the vote without passing the election law first. And even if the postal ballot goes ahead, the opposition charges that it won’t be possible to count the votes before the runoff round scheduled for May 24.
Nonetheless, the government has printed the ballots — creating further controversy. Newspapers immediately reported that the contract went to a private firm with previous experience in commercial fliers but with no capacity to ensure the security of the ballots. A few days later, copies of the ballots were leaked, and a livid presidential candidate demonstrated how easy it would be to copy them and submit multiple votes. Not surprisingly, even PiS politicians openly worried that the election would be a “farce.”
The opposition strikes back
The opposition used the one institutional weapon at its disposal: to delay voting on the bill in the Senate for the 30 days allowed by law. The Senate eventually took up the discussion of the bill and rejected it on Tuesday.
In a bizarre turn, Gowin and Kaczynski met on Wednesday and arrived at a compromise three days before the elections. Yes, Poland would hold the election as planned on May 10. The Supreme Court would then declare the elections null and void. New elections will take place later in the year, in July or August, without a declaration of state of emergency.
The move was met with relief from the opposition — and immediate criticism that the two politicians do not have the authority to impose this solution. The electoral commission then announced on May 7 that because it did not have the legal authority to print the ballots, it was unable to run the elections, leaving the PiS government in charge of an election it planned to invalidate.
All the authoritarian commitments, half the competence?
PiS has often been compared to the authoritarian ruling party in Hungary, Fidesz. Under the guise of emergency measures to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, Fidesz has recently passed laws that give extensive (and indefinite) decree power to the prime minister, consolidating its hold on power in Hungary.
Critics have accused PiS of having the same authoritarian aims. Yet the controversy around the presidential elections in Poland suggests that shared opportunities and goals are not enough to push through institutional change: Political competence matters just as much.
Anna Grzymala-Busse (@AnnaGBusse) is Michelle and Kevin Douglas Professor of International Studies at Stanford University.