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Poland’s Covid presidential election: A make-or-break gamble?

Jaroslaw Gowin and Jaroslaw Kaczynski in the Polish lower house of Parliament

Warsaw, Poland – While the deadly progression of the Covid-19 epidemic appears to be slowing down in Europe, Visegrad countries have been largely spared compared to other EU states, in part because it acted much quicker than countries in Western Europe. In Poland, faced with the weaknesses of the hospital and healthcare system, social distancing and lockdown measures were taken relatively early by authorities as the debate over whether or not to hold the planned presidential election rages on.

The pandemic has so far led to over 14,600 cases of confirmed Covid-19 infections and more than 700 deaths in Poland. Nevertheless, public health risks are still high, Poland is one of the few EU countries where the number of new daily cases hasn’t significantly slowed down and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced that the peak of epidemic should be expected sometime between May and June.

However, the Law and Justice Party (PiS) and its leader Jarosław Kaczyński are, through thick and thin, determined to hold the presidential election scheduled for Sunday, May 10, as soon as possible. Despite surveys showing that a vast majority of Poles are against it, and the countless warnings of experts saying, like the head of Poland’s electoral commission, that holding the elections are “impossible”.

Why is the government pushing ahead, and at what cost?

In Poland, a Covid presidential election and a high-risk gamble

On the evening of 13 October, following the victory of PiS in the legislative elections (43.5% of the votes), Kaczyński held a mixed message: while the party could congratulate itself for remaining in power, the feeling of victory was tainted with a sense of disappointment and under-achievement.

Indeed, the Senate fell in the hands of the opposition and PiS only managed to retain a majority at the Sejm – the lower and most powerful house of Parliament – thanks to a coalition with three other smaller parties: Porozumienie of Jarosław Gowin (18 seats), Solidarna Polska of Zbigniew Ziobro (18) and the Partia Republikańska (1).

Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska was picked as the presidential candidate for the centre-right Civic Platform (PO) last December.

As soon as the results came in, the ruling party was already focusing all its attention on the presidential election – the third major electoral event in only a year – scheduled a few months later. A victory for current President Andrzej Duda very quickly became the PiS’s top priority in order to enable the government to freely implement its reforms during its second term in office. Indeed, although the President does not have a central role and large institutional prerogatives in Poland’s political system, he does have a significant legislative blocking capacity.

The political battle between PiS and the opposition intensified over the last few months against the backdrop of strong economic growth and controversies regarding the government’s judicial reforms. As expected, the election campaign quickly became a duel between incumbent Andrzej Duda (supported by PiS) and Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska (Civic Platform, PO).

The opposition candidate even managed to significantly reduce the gap with Duda, as shown by polls conducted at the end of February which placed them only a few percentage points apart in a hypothetical second round.

Why PiS wants to hold the presidential election on May 10

A month later, the situation considerably changed due to the pandemic and health crisis.

The popularity of Duda, which is omnipresent in crisis management and benefited from disproportionate media coverage, soared, while all other candidates, unable to campaign due to restrictive anti-coronavirus measures, left the public eye. The latest polls even predicted a possible first-round victory for the current head of state. According to most analysts, PiS wants to hold the presidential elections as soon as possible in order to take advantage of this surge in popularity generated by Duda’s role in managing the crisis, perceived as positive by large parts of the population for now, and in defiance with the basic principles of equality, fairness and transparency required to hold a democratic election.

In times of crisis, risk-averse citizens commonly rally around their known and established leaders, rather than demand change. Score-settling and accountability usually comes after, and PiS doesn’t appear too eager to wait that long to hold the election.

Polish 2020 presidential elections poll of polls
Incumbent Andrzej Duda remains in the lead in all the national polls for the upcoming presidential election in Poland.

PiS is of course well aware that Duda’s popularity could plummet in the coming weeks or months if the epidemic lingers on and once the inevitable deterioration of the economic situation kicks in – authorities are indeed expecting a deep economic recession in 2020 – the first in about 20 years.

Will Poland hold its presidential election by post?

Faced with the impossibility of holding elections under normal conditions, the ruling party began, as early as March, raising the possibility of using postal voting. Opposition parties, pointing out that it was impossible to hold free and fair elections in this context and that even postal voting poses significant health risks, consistently and unanimously called for the government to declare a state of natural disaster, which would legally allow these elections to be postponed for at least three months.

Determined to maintain these elections at all costs in the name of “democratic stability”, PiS eventually submitted a bill to Parliament confirming the introduction of postal voting. For the first time in many years, this vote didn’t have a positive outcome (228 in favour, 228 against and 4 abstentions), dealing a rare blow to the ruling party. That same evening, however, PiS came back with a second legislative proposal, which passed.

The draft law has been sent to the opposition-controlled Senate which, after delaying the vote as much as it legally could, rejected it only yesterday. The bill has now been sent back to the Sejm, which has the power to overturn the Senate’s veto but needs a shakier-than-ever majority to pass it and would only have a few days to organize the postal ballot (although the election date could be postponed until May 17 due to an amendment passed to the electoral code, or up to May 23 per PiS’ postal voting draft bill).

To fast-track the process, the government has, over the past few weeks, already started taking measures to prepare for postal voting – a move considered illegal, considering the law allowing postal election still hasn’t been passed.

PiS therefore has a very limited room for manoeuvre, given how chaotic, to say the least, the electoral process is bound to be, both at the constitutional level (according to the Constitutional Court, a substantial modification of the electoral code must take place at least 6 months before any election, presidential or not, in Poland) and at the technical level (routing of ballot papers, electoral districts not updated, health security not guaranteed, multiple possibilities of fraud, lack of staff and capacity, etc.).

If held as planned, the election would therefore lack legitimacy, even more so considering the low voters turnout expected – since more than three-quarters of voters are against maintaining the election, according to the latest polls.

Jaroslaw Gowin (left) is the first government member to openly challenge Jaroslaw Kaczynski (right) and the PiS party in what could be the prelude to a major change in Polish politics.

Is the Polish government on the brink of collapse?

At the heart of this legislative melodrama stands Jarosław Gowin – leader of the Porozumienie junior coalition partner and, until recently, Deputy Prime Minister in charge of Science and Higher Education. Opposed to the idea of holding these elections due to the threat it may pose to public health, he suggested an intermediate solution: the extension of the presidential term by two years and the holding of the presidential election in 2022 – given Duda would not be able to run for reelection then – a move that would itself require a change in the constitution and a super-majority to approve it.

After his alternative solution was rejected, Gowin resigned from the government last month and returned to the benches of Parliament. This resignation, the first open rebellion against Kaczynski’s iron-fist rule, could have profound consequences for the political future of the country, as the support of his Porozumienie proves critical for the survival of the PiS-led government. If 4 (or more) MPs were to leave the coalition, the Law and Justice party would lose its parliamentary majority.

Despite Gowin’s announcement that his party’s priority was to safeguard the political stability of the country in these times of crisis, rumours are already circulating about Gowin’s possible willingness to set up an alternative coalition (Civic Platform, PSL, left-wing parties) and oust Kaczynski’s party from power.

As days pass by, this possibility appears to become more real, although many analysts still consider it far-fetched and unlikely. Let us not forget that Gowin has a complicated relationship, to say the least, with the Civic Platform (PO), of which he was a member a few years ago. And even if they agree to put their political differences aside and show a united front, these parties may still not be too eager to take power in these troubled times or risk being accused of a political coup amidst one of the country’s worst crises in recent decades.

A pivotal week in Polish politics

Gowin’s resignation is no mere anecdote, but reflects deep political divisions within the government coalition that will be difficult to gap in the long-run. These developments also revealed PiS’ vulnerability, showing that minor political parties could have an important say over the government’s plans and highlighting the fragile unity within PiS and around its longtime leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. It remains to be seen, however, whether Gowin will remain a rare case or if the entire Porozumienie party will follow in his footsteps.

Whatever happens in the next few days and weeks, PiS’ current mandate could be deeply weakened and its surrealistic doggedness to maintain the May 10 presidential elections could very well be detrimental to the Law and Justice Party. Although Duda will most likely be reelected if elections are held this month, the cost PiS will have to pay may very well trump the spoils of victory.

Poland may be at a turning point, and the path chosen this week by Jaroslaw Gowin and his party’s MPs regarding the planned presidential election will be key to determine the country’s political future.

Main photo credit: Mateusz Włodarczyk / Forum

Article co-written by Romain Le Quiniou, founder of Euro Créative, an official Kafkadesk partner.

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