Mock election in Poland highlights rights denied to migrants

A Ukrainian artist is using Poland’s presidential election to draw attention to the plight of migrants, including hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, who have no political voice.

Sunday’s presidential run-off in Poland could prove pivotal, yet hundreds of thousands of voting-age people will not have a say.

Battling a major labour shortage, Poland has flung open its doors in recent years to huge numbers of Ukrainian workers, while simultaneously throwing up bureaucratic obstacles to permanent residence and citizenship and denying them the opportunity to vote.

It’s a state of affairs that Ukrainian artist Marta Romankiv is working to rectify ahead of Sunday’s second round presidential election, symbolically at least.

A resident of Poland for the past five years, 25-year-old Romankiv set up mock voting booths before the first-round vote on June 28 in six Polish cities near local municipal offices dealing with foreigners, printed out ballot papers in several languages and invited migrants to cast their votes.

Ballot boxes filled with the ‘invalid’ ballots will be displayed, unopened, in a Warsaw exhibition space as a symbol of the political exclusion of migrants, Romankiv told BIRN.

“The idea of this project is to draw attention to the contradictory – maybe deliberate – migration policy of this state,” she said.

“On the one hand, it welcomes many economic migrants, but, on the other hand, it does not create any mechanisms of integration for them to become a part of society.”

European Union countries, including Poland, offer other EU citizens the right to vote in local and EU elections if they are resident in that country. Some extend the offer to vote in local elections to non-EU citizens too. But not Poland.

Part of an artist residency with the Biennale Warszawa, one of Poland’s most innovative cultural institutions, Romankiv’s project poses a simple question – in a world as globalised as ours, can it make sense to apportion voting rights according to nationality?

Migrants kept at arm’s length

While Poland remains a relatively homogeneous country, in recent years it has become one of the biggest recipients of migrants in the EU as it seeks to fill gaps in the labour market and maintain high rates of economic growth.

With their own economy ravaged by corruption and destabilised by Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its fomenting of rebellion in the eastern Donbass, Ukrainians have flocked to their western neighbour.

Poland’s migration policy makes it almost impossible to ascertain with any certainty the true number of immigrants. The Polish National Bank estimates that more than a million Ukrainians were working in the country in 2019; other estimates put the number of Ukrainians in the country at 1.5 million. Poland’s has a population of 38 million.

Poland, however, keeps them at arm’s length, favouring a system of short-term, pendulum-type migration.

The visa obtained by most Ukrainians is easy to get but limits the holder to six months of work in a 12-month period. This way, the Polish economy benefits from their labour, but avoids the costs associated with a longer-term stay or real integration.

Those who want to stay longer or settle for good must jump through a series of bureaucratic hoops over a period of five to ten years. The wheels of Polish bureaucracy move slowly and any change in employment status can further prolong the process.

Teodor Ajder, a 42-year-old artist and writer from Moldova, settled in Warsaw 14 years ago, but only voted for the first time in Romankiv’s ‘election’.

“It was very exciting to vote,” he said. “I was very much looking forward to it ever since I heard about the project, though I was aware that it’s just a simulacrum of voting.”

“I’ve been living here for years, I respect the laws of the country and pay taxes. I contribute to Polish culture and take part in social life. I engage in contemporary debates.”

“Despite all of this, it’s not only that I don’t have the right to vote, but the mere fact of bringing it up is controversial.”

Liberal challenger to right-wing incumbent

Romankiv said the idea came to her during last year’s Polish parliamentary election, when she realised she was unable to join her friends in voting despite living in the country for five years and feeling part of Polish society.

Originally from the western Ukrainian town of Lviv, Romankiv speaks fluent Polish and is enrolled in university in the northwestern Polish town of Szczecin.

Last year’s parliamentary election was won, again, by the ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party, which is backing incumbent President Andrzej Duda for a second term in Sunday’s run-off against liberal challenger and Warsaw mayor Rafal Trzaskowski.

Romankiv said that, while her project is relevant for many other countries, it was no coincidence it emerged from her experience in Poland.

“The reason why this is an even more active issue for Poland is the fact that it is one of the leaders in receiving economic migrants,” she said. “Despite that, unlike many other EU countries, it does not allow non-EU migrants to vote even in local elections.”

Ivanka Kyliushyk, a Ukrainian PhD student who, like Romankiv, has lived in Poland for five years, agreed.

Casting her vote in Romankiv’s ‘election’, Kyliushyk said: “It’s not hard to note that Poland has liberalised access to its labour market for foreigners, allowing them to reside here under different formulas. As a consequence, the number of foreigners in Poland is increasing year after year and we have ended up occupying various positions in Polish society. Nevertheless, the issue of including migrants – especially those from non-EU countries – in Poland’s political life is systematically marginalised.”

No reply

After eight years in opposition, Law and Justice returned to power in 2015 on rabidly anti-refugee platform, with party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski declaring that the mainly Muslim migrants and refugees reaching Europe’s shores from the Middle East, Asia and Africa at that time were carrying “parasites and protozoa”.

A draft 2019 migration policy, which was eventually dropped, branded Muslims “incapable of integration” and proposed a points-based system of “favoured” migrants based on ethnicity and religion.

The party has toned down its anti-migrant rhetoric since, as ever-growing numbers of Ukrainians arrived to help keep the Polish economy ticking over at virtually no cost to the Polish state.

In this election, the party has turned its guns on a supposed “LGBT ideology” as the chief threat to the country.

That is not to say that Romankiv’s project has been well received by everyone. The artist said she has received a number of messages opposing the idea of granting political rights to migrants.

As part of the project, Romankiv approached all 11 candidates in the first round of the presidential election, asking them each a set of questions including whether they would support the integration of migrants, fight labour exploitation or ensure the right to asylum is respected on Poland’s eastern frontier. Each candidate was invited to take part in a meeting with migrants in Poland.

None of the candidates replied. Romankiv resubmitted her questions to second-round contenders Duda and Trzaskowski. She is still waiting for a reply from either man.

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