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Democratic Empowerment and Transnational Threats

How to Exploit the Coronavirus Crisis? Learn from the Polish Government

Many democracies around the world have decided to postpone elections due to the coronavirus outbreak, however, it seems like holding election during a pandemic is not a concern for the Polish government. Despite the complaints of the opposition and concerns expressed by the European Commission, the ruling nationalist party Law and Justice (PiS) is pressing ahead with plans for the presidential election in May. The popularity of the current president and a candidate of PiS Andrej Duda is closely linked to the party’s agenda especially in terms of social spending and welfare policies. With opposition parties in control of the Senate, PiS needs its man to complete the controversial justice reform.

The main reason for postponing elections is more than obvious – health of voters and everyone involved. And it is not only about the election day but also about the pre-election period. Public events are not possible because of social distancing and therefore, candidates cannot meet with their supporters. Equally, turnout could be hit because people would prefer to stay away from the polls – especially then elderly voters and at-risk groups. 

PiS Consolidates its Power

The question of postponing the presidential elections, planned on May 10 2020, has naturally arisen from the situation since a state of epidemic has been declared. PiS, however, never accepted this idea and there are good political reasons behind this stance. Andrej Duda is far ahead in opinion polls. A survey out in the last week of March estimated 46.4[1] per cent of support. There are even speculations that Duda is close to a first-round victory and PiS wants to seize this opportunity by presenting it as a practical solution due to the Coronavirus crisis. On the contrary, if the pandemic gets worse, he could lose his voters. And the worrying signs are already there – health service is underfunded, understaffed and the testing rate is much lower than in other European countries[2]. Much is in stake – Duda´s defeat would be a disaster for PiS as the party lacks three-fifths majority to overturn a presidential veto.

And so, Duda does not want to underestimate the upcoming elections and has been conducting a campaign which is far away from fair with respect to other presidential candidates. He travels around the country, visits places such as hospitals and presents it as a standard job of a head of state. His strength is a connection with ordinary Poles and provincial parts of the country which are PiS’s electoral heartland. Moreover, he gets lots of coverage in state-owned media which became a place of PiS propaganda. Duda also benefits from support provided by Jaroslaw Kaczyński, a leader of PiS, who is de facto the most powerful man in Poland. While launching his campaign, Kaczyński called him a ‘dream candidate’ and was full of praise for him.

Opposition Is Out of the Game

Hands of the opposition candidates are tied up; the question of the elections’ fairness was mainly based upon the suspension of the campaign rallies. Also, only a limited range of topics is recently discussed as Coronavirus has been dominating and the situation is even worse because of the state-owned media – Duda thus has a privileged position. An independent candidate Szymon Hołownia, a left-wing candidate Robert Biedroń or a Civil Platform’s candidate Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska either have suspended their campaigns or were forced to carry the campaigns out partially due to tight measures. The latter, who ranks second in preferences, appeals to the others for boycotting. She also accused PiS of conducting a coup to secure power for other years.

It is important to mention that the government refrains from announcing a state of emergency which would delay any elections until 90 days after the end of such a state. Some say that Poland is already in a state of emergency due to taken measures and therefore, the ruling party violates the constitution. 

Electoral System Changes or an Extension of Presidential Term?

To justify holding elections, on April 6, the PiS-dominated Sejm (the lower house of the Polish Parliament) passed a draft law that allows postal voting. The Senate has thirty days to respond, theoretically three days until the elections. If rejected or modified, the Sejm would likely approve it at the last moment. Importantly, based on an early verdict of the Polish Constitutional Court, it is not possible to change the electoral system six months before their term. Critics also point out that the country cannot organize an unprecedented election in such a short notice and postal workers would face great risk.

Owing to arguments against postal voting, PiS lawmakers proposed to modify the constitution and to extend presidential term of office to seven years. This modification would allow Duda to stay in office, however, without a possibility to run for a president again. The opposition is not in a good place – rejecting the constitutional changes would make postal voting more probable and accepting would help PiS to push through its programme of radical state reconstruction.

The whole situation surrounding the presidential elections raised many concerns not just among Poles but also outside of Poland. The EU Values and Transparency Commissioner Věra Jourová said to be concerned about legality, constitutionality and quality of such voting. OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) has commented on the limitations on public gatherings – one of the commitments to hold a democratic election. Last but not least, Human Rights Watch calls upon the government to postpone the elections if there is no guarantee of a free and fair vote.

At the time of writing, a few days before the presidential elections, the situation is still very dynamic and unclear. Even Poles do not know how the situation will culminate. There are speculations about moving the vote to May 17 or May 23 instead. Undoubtedly, the election will shape the Polish political scene until the next parliamentary elections scheduled on 2023.


[1] https://wiadomosci.radiozet.pl/Polityka/Wybory-prezydenckie-2020/Nowy-sondaz-prezydencki.-Duda-zyskuje-Kidawa-Blonska-traci-poparcie, 29. 4. 2020.

[2] Total COVID-19 tests per million people in Poland is approx. 10.000 – the fifth lowest testing ratio in the EU.
A summary table of the EU countries is available here: https://nakit.cz/koronadata, 4. 5. 2020.

By Soňa Hoigerová

Soňa holds a Master's degree in International Relations and European Studies from the University of Florence. Besides European policies, she is interested in the issues concerning Gender and Global South. She has been currently working as a coordinator of the European Solidarity Corps projects.

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