Under Cover of COVID-19: The Political Gambling in Poland
While the world’s attention is riveted to the pandemic of coronavirus, leaders all over the world consider these hard times as an opportunity to grab more power. These weeks of severe hardship could raise the autocracies to the skies – and could unseat them. Meanwhile, they hope the citizens will barely notice their efforts, like Andrzej Duda and the “Law and Justice” party, try to do it in Poland. In case of success, Polish conservatives will solidify their hold on power, despite the possible risks of their decisions to society.
[Arkadiusz Stankiewicz/Agencja Gazeta/Reuters]
The pandemic has significantly affected all areas of life, but not cancelled the political agenda. In these times of crisis, politicians of Central Europe continue to give multiple causes for criticism – the circumstances do not reduce their desire to remain in power at any cost. The most noticeable newsbreak was given by Budapest, where Viktor Orban pushed through a law that gives him the authority to rule by decree for an indefinite period. However, the menace of authoritarianism is at hand not only in Hungary. Many Central European countries can become hostages of their leaders’ long-held plans.
On May 10, 2020, presidential elections were to be held in Poland. Two months ago everything was predictable: opinion polls showed that Andrzej Duda, one of the most popular politicians in the country, who also has significant support amongst the electorate of the leading “Law and Justice” (PiS), conservative and populist party, would win them with little effort.  However, the epidemic in Poland threatened to spoil his game and put the country at risk of a political crisis.
Due to the spread of COVID-19, candidates were not allowed to conduct election campaigns in a traditional way, as opposition politicians have reasonably noticed. One of the candidates, Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska, stopped her campaign activities, calling on her supporters to follow the rules of social distancing.  However, the changes were opposed by politicians from PiS, who did not intend to change their priorities. They insisted on holding them as it was scheduled and they had a reason – according to the polls, Andrzej Duda, who is the current president, might get more than 50% of the vote that would allow him to win in the first round.  Postponing the first round was not profitable for politicians from “Law and Justice”. Andrzej Duda on May 10 could have every chance of being reelected in – due to the epidemic when people tend to trust the leader more, his rating has even increased.  The eerie and gloomy times of crisis always lead the public to view their incumbent as the focus of national unity. Besides, as long as the danger is at hand and Duda is in power, he doesn't even need to run an election campaign. He is already in the media spotlight all the time. And if he won the election, PiS would get the time to continue pushing through reforms to tighten its control over state institutions – the pipe dream and main axis of conservatives since 2015 when they got grip on power.
Probably, the greatest benefit from this crisis will be gained by the leaders in whose countries elections are scheduled for the near future. Rulers who will have to wait longer for elections will potentially lose the advantages that the “COVID-19 effect” gives them so far. Their approval ratings could be smashed by the negative consequences of inevitable economic decrease. Thus, in April the deputies from the right parties on the second attempt have passed a bill according to which the head of state can only be chosen wholly by postal vote – on May, 10. The desire of PiS was understandable, but due to several circumstances, the situation turned into a real cobweb of contradictions that, finally, made parties in Poland’s ruling coalition postpone a scheduled presidential election. This bill was passed by PiS-dominated Sejm, the lower house, and the upper- house, Senate, had 30 days to respond. If it had rejected or modified the legislation, Sejm would likely have approved it again in a session just a few days before the elections – when there was too little time to organize the process. Then, it was unclear how “Porozumienie” party (it is in ruling PiS-coalition) would behave. Their leader – Jaroslaw Gowin – was quite ambiguous about his party decision after the Senate amendments during the second voting in Sejm. Senate probably would have rejected the bill but then Sejm could approve it by the majority of the entire membership. That's why Jaroslaw Gowin’s opinion was crucial – without his party’s support, PiS didn’t have sufficient votes in Sejm
After that, the bill had to be signed by the President and then published. It's technically possible to pass it before the elections. However, according to law, the old Election Code is still binding – it does not allow postal voting. Besides, formally, when the new bill is passed, all election commissions should be dissolved and formed again, according to the new law. What is more – elections should be conducted by PKW (Central Election Commission), but the government decided that Minister of the State Assets will be responsible for the elections. That turns the current situation into a real cobweb of contradictions that are to be solved as promptly as possible.
Although it would have been dangerous and difficult to hold elections normally – at minimum, Poland has no experience of postal voting – the amendments could play into the hands of Andrzej Duda and PiS. These last-minute changes could increase the risk of fraud and, in fact, excluded the opposition on the eve of the election but PiS said mail-in voting would be a democratic victory that poses no health risks. However, it would have been difficult for all voters to understand new rules as well –and not less tough for politicians to persuade them to vote. Only 9% of Poles supported elections in May due to the epidemic and political ambiguity.
Furthermore, not all Poles perceived the PiS initiative positively. Some lawyers believed that they violate the current law, because, according to the decision of the Polish constitutional court of 2006, it is forbidden to make such changes in the last six months before the elections.  The opposition said that elections in such conditions will be undemocratic. Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska, the candidate for the opposition Civic Coalition, has tweeted that PiS is “conducting a coup d'état to ensure full power for the coming years”. Nonetheless, Polish opposition is still not sure how to react – to boycott and lose, or try to win with very little chances and legitimize this pageantry.
Just on the brink of the vote, it has been postponed, but it does not mean that conservatives have stopped insisting that the presidential election should take place in the near future, still exclusively by postal vote. They still press publicly for a quick election, most likely during the summer – “as soon as possible”, like Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of PiS party, and Jaroslaw Gowin announced it in a joint statement.
However, conservatives insist that the presidential election should take place, claiming the date of the election is dictated by the country's constitution. At least, “if it did happen that the epidemic was raging … then in that situation, the election date could turn out to be unsustainable, but I am counting on it that we will be able to calmly hold these elections”, said Duda.  After all, only the country's Supreme Court can decide whether an election is valid or not – and it includes government-elected judges, which gives conservatives some confidence.
Today the Polish opposition can heave a sigh of relief – they said, under these circumstances, the lack of a normal election campaign was the problem for its candidates.  It sounds somewhat sly – even before the epidemic, it was difficult for opposition politicians to decide on a candidate who would have a real chance to win in a difficult confrontation with Andrzej Duda. It is unlikely that they will be able to seriously strengthen their positions just by postponing the election date – if only they changed candidates with someone more charismatic and advantageous. However, the impending consequences of the epidemic may play in their favour. Who, if not politicians in power, usually become responsible for the problems of the economy and the deterioration of life?
On the other hand, if “Law and Justice” risked holding elections without delay, their decision might have negatively affected the political image of the party. In the case of Duda's victory, half of the Polish citizens would see a dirty and rough game in his triumph, a kind of manipulation of the democratic procedure under the cover of a pandemic. If today, despite all the scepticism of the opposition, PiS is legally presented, after the vote on May 10, the enemies of the conservatives would bluntly declare that the new President does not have the right to represent Poland.
In addition to increasing the split in Polish society, Warsaw would also feel the consequences at the level of the European Union. Poland, like some other countries in Central Europe, is accused of being led by populists who attempt to undermine the foundations of democracy in every way. Adam Bodnar, Poland's human rights ombudsman, is warning: "Exposing voting citizens as well as members of electoral commissions to a serious risk of health and life could lead to civil and even criminal responsibility for public officials”. Measures “pushed” by PiS would have looked like another step towards abusing the democratic political system – Duda risked not to get a credible mandate. But has this concern ever confused populists?