Nativist Drive For Polish Ballot During Virus Crisis Is Stalling

(Bloomberg) -- Poland’s drive to hold a presidential election during the coronavirus crisis -- which heightened fears over the state of its democracy -- has suffered a blow.

Facing a revolt by its own lawmakers on Friday, Law & Justice refrained from a vote on a contested measure to hold the May 10 ballot by mail, an untested method in the country that raised concerns over fraud. Another idea to prolong the president’s term was also rejected.

The events in Poland follow the passage of a law in Hungary that allows its government to rule by decree for as long as it wants -- a development that’s intensifying concern in Europe that leaders with autocratic leanings will use the cover of Covid-19 to seize more power.

Unless it comes up with another last-ditch idea, Law & Justice must push ahead with a ballot still scheduled to take place in five weeks -- at the risk of exposing voters to contagion -- or delay it in line with current regulations. But that would mean likely holding an election in several months, when the anticipated economic crisis bites.

“The tool to resolve the situation is to introduce a state of emergency,” said Borys Budka, the leader of the opposition-leading Civic Platform. Doing so would automatically delay the election until 90 days after the measure is lifted, he said.

Democratic Values

Opposition parties have halted campaigning under the lockdown and warn the election will be unfair. Incumbent Andrzej Duda, a former member of Law & Justice, has surged in popularity as a leader of the nation’s virus response. Duda’s main challenger has called for a boycott to save lives.

Law & Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski tried to get around that by pushing for legislation that would allow the vote to take place via mail-in ballots. But that hit a wall Friday when Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Gowin said a May election was “impossible” and suggested the government try to extend Duda’s term until 2022.

The opposition rejected the idea, rendering it dead on arrival because their support is needed to change the constitution to prolong the term.

The dispute underscores worry over the decade-long march of populists who are rebelling against the European Union’s democratic values. Hungarian Premier Viktor Orban secured the right to rule his country without parliament, drawing a rebuke from more than a dozen EU states.

‘Strategic Mistake’

European nations, including Serbia, North Macedonia and EU member Romania, have postponed elections scheduled for summer, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has delayed a referendum that would let him rule until 2036. France held a vote for local administrations, as did the German state of Bavaria.

Law & Justice controls 235 of the lower chamber’s 460 seats, far short of the two-thirds majority required to change the constitution.

Kaczynski needs to hold on to the presidency to reorient Poland back toward its Catholic roots by complete an overhaul of the judiciary, schools, media and many aspects of every-day life. His court reforms have triggered unprecedented EU lawsuits accusing the ruling party of flouting the rule of law and grabbing control over the judiciary.

The virus has killed 65 people in Poland, which has been in lockdown for weeks. And with three quarters of Poles in favor of postponing the vote, Kaczynski’s reluctance to do may also undermine his party’s popularity.

“Kaczynski has made a strategic mistake,” said Anna Materska-Sosnowska, a political scientist at Warsaw University. “By saying there’s no problem in holding elections in May, he revealed a disconnect with reality.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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