Insight Poland

From Warsaw to Washington, democracy is under quarantine

Andrzej Duda and Donald Trump shaking hands in front of the White House

Across Poland and the United States, people have proven incredibly resilient in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. Many businesses have found ways to reach their customers safely, and people have found ways to both work and socialize at a distance. quarantine democracy

But as lockdowns are loosened and people begin leading lives that are closer to normal, there is one thing that continues to remain in quarantine – and that’s our democracy.

Now that we’ve all had some time to stockpile on yeast, toilet paper and assurances that we will survive, we need to focus our attention on what our world leaders have been up to while we were making sure that we wouldn’t get sick, starve or die of boredom at home.

Poland’s ghost election

In Poland, politicians from the ruling party decided that constitutionally-mandated elections would not be held in May — essentially because party members couldn’t come to an agreement, which would have been informal anyway, about how the voting should be carried out.

Poland held bizarre ghost election with zero voter turnout as polling stations remained closed.

Rather than abiding by the text of the Polish constitution that stipulates how to address elections scheduled amid extraordinary circumstances, the ironically-named Law & Justice party simply ignored the constitution and allowed the elections to not be held for the first time since Poland returned to a democratic form of government three decades ago.

On one side of this debate was President Andrzej Duda, whose preference was for holding regular in-person elections — likely because of polling in his favor as well as earlier reports that his party was considering seeking his resignation as a way to postpone the decision.

Renewed Republican fervor and audacity

Not to be outdone by his authoritarian counterpart in Poland, Donald Trump similarly indicated a preference for regular elections to take place in November and even encouraged his party to resist vote-by-mail efforts because it “doesn’t work out well for Republicans.” On a separate occasion, he also acknowledged that significantly improving voter turnout would result in “never having a Republican elected in this country again.”

For a political party that was already aware of these facts and notorious for voter suppression before the pandemic, Republicans have responded to their leader’s call to violate constituent voting rights with a renewed fervor and audacity. In Texas, for example, the state’s Republican attorney general has threatened to prosecute local elections officials if they encourage voters to vote by mail because of the pandemic.

Close to seven-in-ten voters in the U.S. advocate the postponement of state primary elections. Credit: Pew Research Center

But if politicians caring more about elections than public health doesn’t seem like anything new, what might be more jarring to realize is that this applies regardless of whether the public supports them or not.

What will happen next?

Both Duda and Trump’s preference to hold regular elections is based on the presumption that voters would come out to vote for them in greater numbers than for their opponents. In other words, both are willing to put their own supporters at risk in the hopes that they will help them win reelection.

It’s hard not to think of Trump telling his supporters in 2015 that they would be “sick and tired of winning” during his presidency — way back before anyone had contracted Covid-19.

Notably, neither the American nor Polish president can run again after the next election per their respective country’s constitution — which means that neither would be held accountable at the ballot box for encouraging voters to risk their lives to exercise their voting rights in person.

With politicians in both countries taking such a lackadaisical approach to the rules, it’s difficult to predict what will happen next.

Donald Trump “failed to stand up for democracy in the region” by “embracing the government of Poland”, states a recent Freedom House report. Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

“Democracy Dies In Darkness”

In Poland, after the date of scheduled elections had come and gone, the State Electoral Commission issued a resolution stating that an election must be held by late July. But what this formal resolution is worth to the politicians who have already broken more than three decades of democratic precedence remains to be seen.

Even less is certain about when American democracy will be allowed out of quarantine.

Republican incumbents at the federal and state levels are still inventing new ways of suppressing the vote scheduled for November. And to add insult to an already-injured democracy, even people who have never been elected to public office, like Jared Kushner, seem to think they may have some say in when and how the elections will be held due to their proximity to the president.

In 2017, when The Washington Post adopted a new slogan after Trump took office — Democracy Dies In Darkness — nobody could have predicted what the next few years would bring, but the slogan has proven to be incredibly poignant.

From Warsaw to Washington, many of us are beginning to find safe ways of venturing outside again — but democracy is still under the strictest of lockdowns and quarantine. And until we can enjoy our full rights outdoors again, we must all do our best to keep the lights on inside.

By Piotr Narel