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Poland’s sham presidential election in a pandemic

Some 25 countries have decided to postpone their upcoming elections, with the last few – mostly regional or in tiny states – being held in early March.

Even Vladimir Putin postponed his constitutional referendum.

The only nation-wide election organised already during the rampaging Covid-19 pandemic was held on March 15 in France, with 600 doctors now requesting prime minister Edouard Philippe be put on trial for failing to prevent an epidemic.

Following the vote, numerous election officials were diagnosed with Covid-19.

How many citizens they might have infected during an entire day at a polling station, with hundreds of encounters each, is perhaps better left unsaid.

This was March. All estimates show the pandemic in full force for at least another couple of months, with the luckier countries managing to ‘flatten the curve’ and not overload their healthcare systems. The ones who fail on the other hand might follow the grim Italian scenario.

Fast forward to May 10th. The height of the global pandemic.

Most – if not all – western states (and numerous around the world) in some form of lockdown, with a declared state of emergency, as is expected in such a situation.

Europe is entirely occupied by the coronavirus. Well, not entirely…

Declaring a state of emergency, though a no-brainer for France, Spain or Belgium, is not even an option on the table for Poland’s supreme leader, Law and Justice (PiS) chairman Jarosław Kaczyński.

The reason is simple – a state of emergency, if instated even for the minimum period of 30 days – would render any May elections impossible, as legally no elections can take place for 90 days following the termination of such a period.

Kaczyński explained his rationale in two recent interviews, on March 21 and 23, seeming either blissfully ignorant of the threat (stressing he still attends holy mass in church), or dangerously cynical and cunning.

His official stance is that not only holding a nationwide election is safe – but that a high turnout could be expected.

His argument? A local by-election, held in five tiny communities on 22 March.

Kaczyński cited a 42 percent turnout in one of them as proof that holding an election during an epidemic is a viable option.

What he failed to mention is that the 42 percent was actually 75 people, out of 174 registered to vote.

In other words, he extrapolated the viability of an election in a 38million-strong country from a 174-person community.

A recent study that calculated the realistic risks of holding a national election in May started their calculation with 270,000 election officials, in 27,000 polling stations, acting as a “Covid-19 assault squad”.

New measures, announced by prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki, include a ban on all gatherings, with a maximum of two people being together in public, with the exception of families.

Yet, an election can still take place.

According to the study, in the unrealistically ideal scenario of all safety measures being perfectly implemented and everyone adhering to every precaution, the election will likely result in some 135,000 new coronavirus infections.

All health considerations aside, holding a democratic, national election during a pandemic, with thousands of citizens in isolation and half the world in lockdown, seems hardly possible at all.

But just in Poland alone there are already 200,000 citizens under mandatory quarantine.

In the UK some one million Polish citizens would be unable to physically visit a polling station with the country being under complete lockdown. Just as in tiny Belgium, also under lockdown, it would be a 250,000 Poles registered to vote (with half a million eligible).

But the above consideration isn’t even touched upon by public officials. Neither is the virtual inability of opposition candidates to conduct an electoral campaign.

Or, should I rather say, only a virtual ability – as public gatherings are prohibited, rendering any physical meetings with voters impossible.

Before the latest round of restrictions Kaczyński even taunted the opposition candidates, stating that “if they wish to organise meetings for up to 50 people, they are free to do so – it’s their choice if they don’t”.

He also addressed the impossibility of gathering the required 100,000 signatures to register a candidate: “there’s no problem, the most important candidates have already done so”. The rule of law, as is typical for PiS, went out the window.

To run or not to run

In this rather unreal scenario the opposition and civil society are clawing for solutions.

A petition has been started for enabling voting via the internet – a good idea on paper, but impossible to implement in such a short timeframe.

It could also potentially legitimise an election which would still exclude (or endanger) a large portion of society – the elderly, the less tech-savvy and those without internet access.

Civil society has also responded in creative ways.

One example is a crowdfunding campaign, organised by the ‘Spontaneous Civic Campaign Headquarters’ (Spontaniczny Sztab Obywatelski) group, which raised some €75,000 for billboards to be strategically placed in PiS’s strongholds, warning that “elections in May might kill you”.

But the likelihood of hardcore PiS voters trusting a billboard – or basic logic for that matter – over the word of their leader, seems unlikely.

The last chance therefore seems to be the opposition candidates themselves.

In theory, if they see past their differences and join a pact, in which they all drop out of the race, it would automatically make the elections void in the eyes of the law. But in a race where there might be at least three marginal candidates, siding with the ruling party, it’s easy to foresee a Russian script, where counter-candidates are only left in order to legitimise the incumbent’s overwhelming victory.

Such a doomsday scenario could then only be resolved by the Supreme Court, which in theory could render the election void.

But are we willing to take that risk? Likewise, could Poland perhaps count on a resolute reaction of the EU and the international community – focused on far more pressing issues – refusing to accept such a sham election?

It’s best if we never have to find out.

[Article originally published in EUobserver on March 27th, 2020]