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Poland’s incredulous presidential election

As incredible as it may seem in the current climate, with most of Europe on lockdown and national elections cancelled in Serbia and North Macedonia, Poland appears determined to go ahead with its presidential vote, set to be held on May 10. A second round, if needed, would take place two weeks later.

Unsurprisingly, the rapid progression of Covid-19 has created an air of uncertainty amongst candidates, who have been left unsure if campaigning – itself made almost impossible by a ban on public gatherings – should be limited to the coronavirus response or if there is still a need to discuss regular policy issues.

Many are calling for the election to be postponed. Opposition candidates and their supporters have voiced concern over the safety of having the public head to the polls in the midst of a pandemic, as well as the perceived unfair advantage the constraints on campaigning offers the incumbent, Andrzej Duda.

As Kasia Szczypska of the Open Dialogue Foundation in Brussels tells Emerging Europe, “The election should be postponed. This would allow for more of a level playing field.”

However, the leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) Jarosław Kaczyński is holding the line, declaring it “too early” to call for a postponement. Indeed, in an interview on March 21, Mr Kaczyński insisted the vote should go ahead. “It would be extremely unfavourable for the president and prime minister to be from various political camps and argue. Today, among other conditions, we need effective crisis management and political stability. This is the reason why these elections should be held on May 10,” he said.

Voters are opposed

Voters will need some convincing. The tabloid SuperExpress recently conducted a poll that showed 70 per cent of voters currently oppose a May 10 election, with only 12 per cent in favour.

The former prime minister and president of the European Council Donald Tusk has also joined the ranks of those calling for postponement, calling the election a risk to public health and safety. “Only a madman or a criminal would propose people head to the polls at this time,” he says. He also points out that the winner would likely face a lack of legitimacy, as low voter turnout and the unprecedented conditions could easily see any victory challenged in court.

The grounds for the postponement of the election would likely be through the declaration of a state of emergency. Poland has taken considerable measures to combat the outbreak but has so far declared merely a ‘state of epidemic emergency’.

“Even Vladimir Putin has just postponed the constitutional referendum that would allow him to stay in power until 2036. Meanwhile, for now, Kaczyński stubbornly keeps his political plan on track despite the deadly virus,” Ms Szczypska tells Emerging Europe.

Some candidates are considering a boycott in protest, and withdrawing from the election completely. However, the chance of such a diverse array of candidates taking part in a uniform action such as this is slim. Moreover, PiS is currently trying to ram emergency measures through parliament to cope with the outbreak and playing hardball with this legislation could make the opposition appear irresponsible at a critical time.

The timing of the election is critical for PiS, and while it seems increasingly likely that it cannot go ahead, waiting too long to postpone it could be seen as losing trust in dealing with the pandemic. If it is postponed, candidates will need to play the long game against Mr Duda, and many issues are likely to arise as candidates and their policies have time to simmer in the current social upheaval.

According to Polish political commentator Martin Mycielski, “The main battle-lines will likely run over the amount of power we wish to grant the ruling party – whether we want to let it reign freely or restrain its grasp. Reelecting Duda will give PiS both a moral and a practical mandate to continue their path of curtailing liberal democracy and abolishing the balance of powers, while electing an opposition candidate will send a signal that Poles’ trust in the party is running out and they wish to keep it in check.”

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