Voting During a Pandemic? Why Poland Faces Pushback

(Bloomberg) -- Poland is one of several countries facing the challenge of holding elections during a pandemic. Unlike France, the U.K., Italy, Spain, Switzerland and Romania, which postponed elections or referendums, Poland is forging ahead with its presidential vote scheduled for May 10. South Korea showed, with its parliamentary election on April 15, that such an event can succeed, with planning and precautions. But Poland’s 30 million voters aren’t sure how or when they’ll cast their ballots, most candidates have practically abandoned campaigning and international election monitors warn that the still incomplete and never tested vote-by-mail system is vulnerable to fraud.

1. What is the government’s plan?

Poland’s nationalist Law & Justice party, whose government has been repeatedly sued by the European Union for its efforts to control the courts and remove checks on its power, plans to use an only-by-mail ballot system it created especially to enable the election to take place during the pandemic. The government is giving itself the option to delay the election by up 13 days, but opposes postponing the vote beyond. It put a top ruling party official in charge of preparations, raising concern of bias. Due to filibustering, parliament hasn’t yet approved the all-mail election, and there are some rebels within Law & Justice’s caucus. But the party has a record of uniting to force through contested legislation.

2. What’s the alternative?

If parliament balks at the postal election, the natural fall-back would be holding an election as normal -- via tens of thousands of polling stations, a system deemed too risky during the health crisis. This scenario would likely force the government to declare the highest state of emergency, automatically postponing the vote by as much as eight months. The opposition, led by Civic Platform, wants the government to impose a state of emergency so the election is delayed. Otherwise, it warns, many voters may boycott what they see as a flawed ballot, eroding its legitimacy. For now, the opposition has ruled out another alternative, backing a ruling-party proposal to amend the constitution to extend the president’s term and hold the election only in 2022.

3. Why is the government pushing for May vote?

President Andrzej Duda, the candidate of the ruling party, has strong footing at the moment, with his popularity rising as a face of relief efforts. A nearly two-month lockdown has also given opposition candidates little chance for face-to-face campaigning. But an election held later this year or early in 2021 might coincide with great pain caused by the economic crisis that’s only now unfolding, according to political scientists. In Poland, the prime minister and president share power, with the head of state able to veto legislation passed by parliament. Critics are concerned that Poland is using the pandemic as a guise to grab more power following Hungary’s example, whose prime minister now has the right to rule by decree indefinitely.

4. Who is objecting and why?

The country’s own State Election Commission, the Supreme Court, the human rights ombudsman, the European Parliament and a number of international pro-democracy bodies warned Poland against pushing through what they regard as a flawed ballot. There are concerns the election-by-mail plan sidelines local electoral commissions and gives more power to government-appointed officials. Hundreds of thousands of voters who live abroad wouldn’t get a chance to vote as Polish embassies and consulates won’t open as polling stations. Some mail carriers are concerned about catching the virus, and a postal union says key regulations regarding how to handle ballots are missing. Some worry about the integrity of ballot handled by people without previous election experience, mirroring a debate ahead of the U.S. presidential ballot. A poll showed 70% of Poles don’t want the ballot held in May.

5. Is a traditional election possible during the pandemic?

South Korea proved it is. Its nationwide vote on April 15 involved temperature checks of voters, protective gear for polling-station workers and separate stations outside of hospitals for the infected. Turnout was strong, with no reports of infections caused by people waiting in line to vote. But comparisons to South Korea might be a stretch, since it’s drawn global admiration for using testing and tracing to curb the virus’s spread without requiring businesses to close or restricting travel. Plus, South Korea was past the peak of its outbreak by April 15, while in Poland, the virus still has a long way to go despite lower numbers than most EU peers. Poland had 12,640 infected people and 624 Covid deaths as of April 29, amid concerns over a relatively small number of tests. A better comparison might be to France, which saw record-low turnout in the first round of municipal elections in March, right before a nationwide lockdown began. In response, France delayed the second round, perhaps to 2021.

The Reference Shelf

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.