Poland Postpones Presidential Election

After weeks of infighting and controversial efforts to organise a postal ballot during the pandemic, Poland’s ruling coalition has agreed not to hold the vote this Sunday.

Parties in Poland’s ruling coalition have agreed to postpone a presidential election scheduled for Sunday after efforts to press ahead with a postal vote during the coronavirus pandemic triggered weeks of infighting and criticism from opposition parties.

The election is now likely to happen during the summer — and still exclusively by postal vote.

The leaders of the Law and Justice (PiS) party and Porozumienie, one of two parties propping up the PiS-dominated coalition, made the announcement on Wednesday night.

PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Porozumienie leader Jaroslaw Gowin said in a joint statement sent to the Polish Press Agency that they had come up with “a solution that will guarantee Poles the possibility of taking part in democratic elections”.

“After the May 10 term passes and after the Supreme Court predictably confirms the invalidity of the elections, on account of them not taking place, the Speaker of the Sejm [lower house of parliament] will announce new presidential elections as soon as possible,” they said.

“The elections organised by the National Electoral Commission will take place by postal vote, out of concern for the safety of Poles, taking into account the epidemiological situation.”

Under this scenario, rather than changing the date of the election — legally problematic without the declaration of a state of emergency, which PiS avoided — the government would simply do nothing to make the vote happen.

Poland’s Supreme Court would then invalidate the election — since it did not take place — and the Speaker of the Sejm would declare a new date within two months. Elections would most likely happen during the summer, before Duda’s term expires on August 6.

PiS had been keen for the vote to take place because its candidate, incumbent President Andrzej Duda, was doing well in the polls as aggressive measures by the government helped keep a lid on the spread of COVID-19.

Porozumienie leader Gowin had said in April he was against the vote happening as scheduled on May 10 and resigned as deputy prime minister over the dispute.

He argued that it was impossible to hold the poll in the middle of the coronavirus crisis and proposed changing the constitution to prolong Duda’s term to seven years from the current five years.

Since Gowin’s resignation, the war within the coalition had escalated to the point of raising doubts about PiS’s ability to maintain power. The populist party only has control of the Sejm thanks to Porozumienie’s 18 seats.

Some legal experts quoted by Polish media before Wednesday’s announcement had declared the idea of having the Supreme Court invalidate this Sunday’s elections constitutional (though others disagree).

But many note the irony of PiS leader Kaczynski nonchalantly anticipating a Supreme Court decision. The PiS leader can now do that since Malgorzata Gersdorf, the critical First President of the Polish Supreme Court, finished her term at the end of April and her replacement is said to be a PiS loyalist.

Wednesday’s agreement gives PiS a way out of a messy situation.

A postal vote that the government had been pressing ahead with for May 10 had turned into a logistical and legal nightmare. And PiS was struggling to find legal ways to change the poll date despite indicating it might be ready to do so. (Experts mocked an attempt by Sejm Speaker Elzbieta Witek to ask the PiS-subservient Constitutional Tribunal to approve postponing the vote to a date later in May as legally unsound.)

A postal vote later this summer is also in line with the recommendations of Polish Health Minister Lukasz Szumowski, who had said a traditional vote would only be safe in two years’ time.

Having the National Electoral Commission in charge of the vote — as opposed to the Ministry of State Assets and Polish Post, as would have been the case if the election happened on Sunday — increases the chance of a fair election, experts say.

On Tuesday, the Senate upper house rejected a PiS-proposed draft law paving the way for a postal vote on Sunday. The Sejm was set to debate the bill on Thursday and PiS faced the high likelihood of not getting its legislation through parliament.

The opposition only needed four Porozumienie lawmakers to vote against the bill to kill the project — and there appeared to be at least that many willing to do so.

In recent days, Polish media have reported on carrot-and-stick attempts by PiS to persuade Porozuminie and other politicians to jump ship, apparently with little success.

According to the Kaczynski-Gowin agreement announced on Wednesday, Gowin’s party committed to voting with PiS to adopt the draft law on postal voting in the Sejm on Thursday, while working with PiS to introduce amendments that would improve the integrity of the postal voting process.

On Thursday morning, the Sejm passed the draft law on postal voting.

While many commentators expressed relief over the decision to delay Sunday’s vote, they say the challenge now is to ensure the new vote is legal and fair.

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