WARSAW — Opposition candidates for Poland’s coming presidential election are squabbling over how to stop the ballot because of the pandemic, but the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party isn’t giving ground.
The leading opposition candidate Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska on Sunday suspended her campaign to protest the government’s refusal to delay the vote from May 10 in light of the coronavirus crisis.
“Today in Poland there is no other task than the battle with the epidemic and its consequences," Kidawa-Błońska, of the opposition Civic Coalition party, said in an open letter. “In these circumstances, organizing presidential elections would be a criminal action.”
She called on her rivals to take the same step and said if the election isn’t delayed then it should be boycotted — setting off an internecine attack among opposition candidates — as incumbent President Andrzej Duda, supported by PiS, rides high in opinion polls.
Other opposition candidates aren’t going along. Independent Szymon Hołownia, who has also suspended his campaign and says PiS’s dogged effort to stick to the electoral calendar despite the pandemic is "madness," said Sunday that a boycott means a loss of civic rights.
Right-wing candidate Krzysztof Bosak called Kidawa-Błońska’s effort "foolish," while the campaign chief of left-wing candidate Robert Biedroń said the step marks her “political retirement.”
It’s part of a growing political battle caused by the ruling party’s refusal to back away from the May election date.
PiS has good political reasons for plowing on. Duda is far ahead in opinion polls thanks both to a gather-round-the-flag sentiment common during crises, and because opposition candidates can’t easily campaign during ever-tighter lockdown measures.
One new poll has Duda romping home in a first-round victory with 65 percent support, although turnout would only be 31 percent. However, he’d only take 44 percent if the election were delayed. Earlier this month, a survey put support for Duda at 46.4 percent.
The party insists the vote can go ahead despite a lockdown in place until April 11. Health experts are worried that holding a vote would lead to a spike in coronavirus cases, as happened when France went ahead with municipal elections on March 15.
“At this moment, elections can take place in Poland,” Jarosław Kaczyński, PiS’s chairman and Poland’s de facto ruler, said earlier this month. "Those who claim otherwise are being directed by their own narrow interests which in essence attack the constitution."
Poland, which took earlier measures to isolate people than many other countries, appears to be doing better than many of its EU peers, but the crisis is likely to worsen in the next weeks.
As of Sunday, Poland had 22 deaths and 1,862 cases, according to POLITICO’s coronavirus tracker; that number is almost certainly an undercount because Poland isn’t doing as much testing as many other EU countries.
Despite those worries, PiS isn’t giving way.
Over the weekend, the government raced through legislation aimed at saving businesses and employees from the economic catastrophe unleashed by the pandemic and the lockdown. But in a chaotic parliamentary session, the ruling party also added changes to the electoral code to the bill.
The measures, which expand postal voting for those over 60 and to people under quarantine — but not to Poles living abroad — are aimed at assuaging doubts about the feasibility of holding an election during a pandemic. They also make it easier for PiS’s core electorate of older voters to cast ballots.
Michał Szczerba, an MP with the Civic Coalition, said that Polish law forbids any changes to electoral rules six months before an election, a contention rejected by PiS lawmakers.
The measure goes to the opposition-controlled upper house senate on Monday, which is mulling stripping out the voting amendments. But any fight over electoral rules risks delaying the rescue measures — a dangerous position for the opposition at a time when the economy is in free-fall.
Sticking to the electoral calendar is also raising questions about the legality of the government’s coronavirus response.
When it announced tougher lockdown measures last week — allowing people to leave their homes only in essential situations and limiting public gatherings to two people — the government refrained from announcing a state of emergency. That step would give the government more legal authority to act, but doing so would delay any election until 60 days after the emergency is lifted.
Eliza Rutynowska, a lawyer at the Civil Development Forum, an NGO, said the new measures mean that the country is in a state of emergency — and if the government doesn’t officially declare it, then it is violating the constitution. “The legal populism of the government is threatening basic citizens’ rights,” she said.
Brussels is steering clear of the debate.
The European Commission said "it is for member states to decide whether to postpone planned elections in the current context." A Commission spokesperson added that "any such decision of course must be consistent with the member states’ obligations in the international law and their constitutional arrangements.”
Adam Bodnar, Poland’s human rights ombudsman, warned in a letter to the country’s electoral commission: "Exposing voting citizens as well as members of electoral commissions to a serious risk of health and life could lead to civil and even criminal responsibility for public officials."
Despite the pressure from Kaczyński, even Duda appears to be wavering.
"If it happens that the epidemic is still raging, and we have the same discipline and limitations as now, then I think that the date of the presidential election is not sustainable," he told public television over the weekend. "However, I’m counting that these elections will be able to be calmly held."
Read more: politico.com