Poland’s ruling coalition, led by Law and Justice (PiS), passed a hugely controversial law on April 6 instituting a mail-only presidential election next month.
The changes were rushed through after the coalition failed to place the draft of the law on the parliamentary agenda earlier that day. That triggered speculation about the government’s possible collapse but PiS eventually marshalled its initially sceptical junior coalition partner, the Alliance party, to vote in favour
A postal vote is a safe way to carry out the election during the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic, the government claims.
But questions remain as to whether the new election rules will potentially endanger the safety of people during the epidemic when millions of voters will have to go out and post their votes via specially designed boxes.
Nationally-held voting by post – normally an option reserved for a minority of voters, such as the disabled – compromises basic rules of a democratic election like anonymous voting, critics have charged.
The technical side of organising a postal vote for some 30mn eligible voters is also staggeringly difficult, given the election is due only next month. The new law gives the parliamentary speaker some leeway in moving the date to up to two weeks later than the original date of May 10.
A controversial provision in the new law also penalises mishandling of the voting cards by up to three years in prison. While it is not clear whether that entails simply not picking up the cards from one’s mailbox – in case someone is not willing to vote at all – the measure is seen as a means to nudge people to vote and inflate turnout.
Some polls have shown that turnout could drop well below 30%, were the election to go ahead during the spreading epidemic.
Poland registered over 4,400 coronavirus cases as of March 6, including 107 deaths. The epidemic could only peak in May or June, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki admitted on April 6.
Since the coronavirus outbreak, there has been virtually no presidential campaign in Poland. The incumbent President Andrzej Duda has clearly benefitted from that, remaining active as the head of state and with unwavering support of the government-controlled public broadcaster TVP.
Recent polls suggest Duda could win without a run-off vote, which takes place if no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote.