Presidential election in Poland in the shadow of the Covid-19 epidemic

May 4, 2020

In August 2020, the term of office of the current president, Andrzej Duda, ends in Poland. The Constitution of the Republic of Poland explicitly states that the election of the head of state should take place on 17 May this year at the latest. 

The creators of the constitution did not foresee the direct possibility of postponing these dates. In practice, this means that after the last day of the term of office of the incumbent president, there will be no person who could exercise the powers of the head of state. These rights are not broad, but important enough that this vacancy will effectively prevent the functioning of the state. The president’s signature is required for the laws adopted by parliament to become law. The situation is similar with the ratification of international agreements, the nomination of judges, awarding the academic title of professor, general degrees in the armed forces. Therefore, the Covid-19 epidemic potentially threatens the internal stability of the state in a situation where the efficient functioning of its institutions is particularly important. Seemingly the situation looks to be simple to solve. However, the crisis superimposed the situation of a serious internal conflict between the ruling conservative coalition of the United Right and the liberal-socialist opposition, in particular the liberal Civic Platform. The political dispute is escalating with every pre-election poll, with polls showing a significant advantage of support for the incumbent president (over 50%) over the PO candidate (4%). The opposition is seeking to postpone the election date as late as possible, hoping that the inevitable economic crisis triggered by the “closure” of most enterprises and the inevitable rise in unemployment will weaken support for the candidate of the ruling party, thus acting in favour of opposition candidates, especially PO candidates. One legal way to postpone the election date without the negative legal and political consequences mentioned above would be to declare a state of emergency in Poland (in this case: the state of natural disaster). It should be remembered that ever since Poland regained sovereignty, the state authorities have not decided on such a drastic measure. This did not happen during the catastrophic floods, during minor floods, or during last year’s drought – even when these disasters hit Poland in the run-up to the parliamentary elections. The opposition also refuses to hold the presidential election by post (voters would receive the electoral cards by post and send their votes for counting in the same way).

Below, I will present the reasons why I consider the demand for an introduction of the state of emergency to be an ineffective solution, or even harmful to the current situation in Poland. Hence, these will be arguments for holding presidential elections on a constitutional date.

  1. The Polish government copes relatively well with the threat of the pandemic using its legal tools. The rule of social distancing was adopted, which contributed to the slowdown in the increase in the number of infections. The number of deaths is also lower than that observed in other European countries. Therefore, introducing a state of emergency is not necessary from a medical or order point of view. In the light of these arguments, the only justification for such a decision would be the constitutional necessity to hold presidential elections. In no way can an election be considered a “state of emergency” in a democratic state. On the contrary, the declaration of a state of emergency to postpone elections is characterised by authoritarian regimes. Therefore, respecting the principles of democracy, elections must be conducted in a timely manner, taking into account, of course, epidemic conditions. And here comes the idea to carry them out by post. The argument for this is the WHO opinion that such elections do not endanger the health of the citizens participating in them. In addition, we also have daily experience of using mail and courier services. People observing social distancing rules make online purchases, and there is no evidence that this causes an increase in coronavirus infections. On the contrary, it is a safer form than a traditional store visit. Also, many official activities in Poland in the current situation look like that: the applicants take the necessary documents to the office and submit them into special containers, and the officials remove them after 48 hours and work on them. Administrative decisions and other documents are sent by post. No cases of infection have been reported here either, whether among the officials or people relying on their work. There is no reason, therefore, that if elections were conducted in this way, it would be different. Furthermore, postal voting will also allow those in hospitals with Covid-19-related illnesses to participate.
  1. There are no prerequisites to sharpen the tools to fight the pandemic in Poland, and even more so in the current situation, when the threat seems to be under control through the means used. Moreover, there is no unequivocal expert opinion whether the current pandemic is completely fading away. However, there are those that say that by the time vaccination is implemented, we will be facing the threat of its return. Thus, it can be assumed that the current state will last longer. There are also opinions that in the autumn the pandemic may return. Therefore, we know too little to say with full responsibility when elections in Poland could take place in the traditional form (i.e. at polling stations). Should we assume that it could be in a year or two? And maybe in five years. Democracy requires elections. There is no way to compare the current situation to the Second World War, which clearly stopped the political cycle in such democratic countries as Great Britain. And there the elections were held as soon as was possible. In addition, it should be remembered that the introduction of a state of emergency provides the state institutions with tools to radically limit the rights and freedoms of the individual, such as censorship of media and correspondence, which hinders the operation of civil society. After all, civic control tools are particularly important in a pandemic, and it is therefore surprising that the political opposition is demanding a state of emergency.
  1. Like other European countries, Poland, influenced by observing medical processes related to the development of the pandemic, and taking into account the threat of a serious economic crisis, decides to gradually lift restrictions in the daily functioning of the population and business. It starts with loosening the mobility restrictions. The next steps are to restart trade, gastronomy and hospitality. Thus, there is a widespread feeling that “it is better”, “we are slowly returning to relative normality”. This can be seen on the streets of Polish towns and cities: car traffic is increasing, more and more pedestrians on the sidewalks. In this situation, it is hard to imagine that the government would suddenly introduce an emergency, once again drastically restricting individual freedoms. It is a matter of the credibility of the authority and its authority with the citizens, based on trust, which is obvious to a citizen of the Western world. This is particularly important in a crisis situation, which we are undoubtedly dealing with on a global scale. Citizens accept and follow restrictions if they are supported by reliable expert information and international experience. Poles have obediently limited contacts and activity outside their homes, because they assumed that the authorities knew what they were doing. Now, both in Poland and in its neighbourhood (Czech Republic, Germany), the strategy of a gradual “business opening” is being employed. The decision to close again will be completely incomprehensible, and very dangerous in the perspective of a possible return of the pandemic in the autumn. Who would then believe the authorities, which first began to open everything because the threat weakened, then closed everything because the opposition does not want elections, and now closes again?… This opens the field for fake news, conspiracy theories, and thus to non-compliance with restrictions. People need some predictability and planning in their decisions for everyday functioning – whether it’s only holiday plans or serious business plans. Constant fluctuations, fuelling the atmosphere of danger, are harmful both to the mental state of the individual and to the normal functioning of the economy. It is therefore a matter of the credibility of the state and its institutions. Those values ​​that are inherently connected with Western democracy, and which we are so laboriously rebuilding in Poland after 1989.
  1. Every citizen of a serious, democratic country has the right to require his authorities to be consistent in their policies. Of course, you can change your mind, but it should be influenced by the emergence of new knowledge – for example, the UK changed the course of action during the pandemic. Elections are not a “natural disaster” that would justify the imposition of a state of emergency. They are the norm in democracy, one of the fundamental civil rights whose deprivation / restriction may be permissible in truly exceptional situations, e.g. during a war. Now this is not the case in Poland or Europe. Even in the US, where there are a lot of cases, nobody talks about cancelling primaries or postponing the elections. This should give food for thought. Interestingly, the Polish opposition is not protesting, although mayoral elections are currently being held in some municipalities. They are carried out in a traditional way, i.e. at polling stations, regardless of whether or not Covid-19 infections are registered in these municipalities. It cannot be said that the health of the inhabitants of one commune is worth less than that of the whole country … This attitude of the opposition indicates that this is not about health, but about the poor result of its candidates for the office of president.

So what is possible to achieve in the current situation in Poland, without dismantling the democratic system, which is widely accepted by citizens? The most reasonable solution is to hold presidential elections on constitutional dates (the constitution provides that if in the first round none of the candidates obtains 50% + 1 votes, a second round with the two candidates who obtained the best result in the first round is necessary), through postal voting. The opposition’s arguments that it is impossible to run an election campaign in a pandemic are completely unsuccessful. First of all, on this principle, we do not know when the conditions will be such that the campaign could run traditionally, i.e. with direct contact with voters. It depends on objective factors, independent of political power, or the will of the candidates. We have a whole range of technological tools in the 21st century which can be used to be in contact with voters. There are traditional and electronic media (television and radio). There are online tools that allow even closer contact with voters than before: social media, tools for videochats etc. So everything that will develop in the future. All candidates have equal access to them, as they are cheap and common. The claim that for some candidates it is a handicap and for others a difficulty is ridiculous: similarly, it can be said that television promotes more media-open candidates at the expense of those who are unable to create their image. In addition, the pandemic has to a large extent caused social life to shift online, so it’s no wonder that the election campaign as well as numerous social campaigns are shifting there. The allegation that the incumbent president has more chances here is misguided: in all, even traditional, elections, the performance of duties related to exercising power is a specific element of the election campaign, which can help (if voters assess the politician’s work as good), but also harm (if voters evaluate it negatively).

Of course, you can ask why, therefore, elections cannot be held in Poland simply through the internet. Here serious technical problems arise which cannot be solved in a short time. Securing the electoral process in the network requires appropriate measures that cannot be produced and tested. However, the experience of a pandemic should lead to the implementation of new technologies also in the electoral process, as is the case in many countries with success in the form of greater turnout.

Another, though more controversial, solution could be to amend the constitution in such a way that the president is elected by the National Assembly (i.e. the combined houses of parliament). There is a legal doubt here: the voters voted in the parliamentary elections knowing the powers of the MPs and senators. Their extension is usually only possible before new elections so that voters choose their representatives knowing that they will receive new rights. This choice of the head of state in the case of Poland has one important advantage: it adjusts the selection method to real competences. The creators of the current constitution have shown considerable inconsistency. In republican states with a parliamentary and cabinet system, where executive power lies with the prime minister and / or the government, the head of state is most often elected by parliament. This is the case in Germany, for example. However, in the presidential system, where the head of state actively participates in exercising executive power, the president is elected by universal suffrage, such as in France or the USA. The Polish constitution assumes the existence of a parliamentary and cabinet system, but the president is elected by universal suffrage. It is also inconsistent and expensive (in financial terms). The epidemic situation could be an opportunity to organise the system. However, the political conflict we face in Poland means that obtaining a 2/3 majority of votes needed to amend the constitution is virtually impossible. Thus, the solution in the form of the postal vote remains the only option on the table.

However, here, too, the responsible attitude of the Polish opposition and the pressure of its voters on their representatives are needed so that, for the good of the state, in such a serious situation, they cooperate with the parliamentary majority, instead of being guided by the calculation of their particular, immediate profits and losses. Unfortunately, in Poland after 1989 we have had a dangerous tradition of deligitimising or undermining the legality of elections by the party that lost them. There is no perception of the good of the state as the supreme value, which is probably inconceivable for the British reader of this text. The current situation in Poland should be closely monitored, and the behaviour and actions of the participants in the dispute should be assessed not in terms of ideological sympathy or dislike, but the responsibility of individual parties and politicians for the state as a whole. Because this party is ruling today, tomorrow another one will govern, and the state will continue and the political system will work regardless of who will hold the highest positions in it.

Dr Aleksander Głogowski, Jagiellonian University

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the British Poles Portal.


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