Poland goes to the polls on May 10 in a controversial presidential election that has been called undemocratic and unconstitutional by the opposition.
– The ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) claims that an election by postal vote is necessary to help stop the spread of COVID-19
– The current Polish government may follow the path of Hungary in using the election to consolidate power, stifle the opposition and invoke emergency rule
– Opposition parties, including the main opposition Civic Platform, may not have a way to successfully challenge the election results
– Increased polarisation and a PiS victory are the most likely outcomes
Voters in Poland will vote from their residences on May 10 as the nation’s first all-postal ballot takes place amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The two main parties are the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), a conservative bloc that has been deeply at odds with Brussels, and Civic Platform, a centrist and more liberal party that last held power from 2007 to 2015. Since first entering government in 2015, PiS has faced criticism and even formal inquiries from the EU over its assault on judicial independence and the rule of law. In contrast, Civic Platform, which was founded by Donald Tusk (who served as president of the European Council from 2014 to 2019), is widely seen as more pro-European.
When compared with its European neighbours, Poland has recorded a remarkably low death count from COVID-19 at 664 people, with over 13,375 confirmed cases. The country reopened some hotels and shopping malls on May 4, and some pre-schools have opened effective May 6. Yet the election on May 10 will be held by post, which the opposition and nine former Polish prime ministers, as well as Tusk, have called undemocratic. For its part, PiS says the measure is necessary to help stop the spread of the virus. But whether the election even occurs on May 10 is in doubt — it could be pushed back due to legal challenges.
COVID-19 AND EMERGENCY POWERS
PiS has pushed through several measures in the Sejm, Poland’s lower house of parliament that it controls, to ensure the upcoming election goes ahead. Civic Platform and other smaller opposition parties view the latest move, to postal voting, as yet another way for PiS to consolidate its power and hurt the electoral chances of the other parties. For Civic Platform and Polish civil society, recent events in Hungary will likely be on their minds — at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban oversaw the passage of a state of emergency and other legislation with no clear time limits that essentially allow him to rule by decree.
Poland is part of the Visegrad Group, a political and cultural alliance that includes Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. The bloc advocates for its shared interests in Central Europe. Recently those interests have been in sharp opposition to Brussels on issues such as immigration and security policy, as well as democratic backsliding that has left the media, judiciary and academia less independent from government interests. After Orban’s move, there is the risk that Poland will take a similar course and use the COVID-19 outbreak as an opportunity to consolidate power, stifle the opposition and invoke emergency rule as a means of establishing national solidarity in a time of crisis. When comparing death tolls and political responses of their Western European contemporaries like the UK, France, Italy and Spain, such emergency rule may be an attractive option for voters who feel a need to isolate and raise barriers in Europe before any further integration can occur.
POLAND IN 2020 AND BEYOND
PiS is likely to win the presidential election, which will see incumbent President Andrzej Duda returned to office. However, the outcome can be expected to increase polarisation and divergent political and national identities within Poland. PiS has emerged as a nationalist party that is for Poland, while Civic Platform is a European party that is for Poland, Poland’s interests in the EU and the interests of other EU member states. This dynamic is unlikely to go away this month as both sides have become ever more entrenched in their positions and view being either nationalist or pro-Europe as vital to their electoral success.
Since it joined the EU in 2004, Poland has been the dominant economic and political power in Central and Eastern Europe, and a shining example of the EU’s enlargement to the post-communist states and former command economies that sought to liberalise. Given its power, Poland’s success as a liberal democracy or its continued democratic backsliding will likely be a key indicator and influence for similar nationalist movements and the other nations of the Visegrad Group. If PiS wins on May 10 and goes the way of Hungary in crafting emergency powers, there will likely be intense pressure from Brussels to act swiftly to ensure the rule of law, judicial independence and a return to compliance with the EU’s democratic norms. Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia met these norms successfully in 2004 when they all joined the EU. However, the EU has not been able to rein in PiS or Orban and has been relatively toothless in its enforcement of the democratic principles that all four nations are signatories to.
As the courts in Poland have been predominantly packed with justices who are supportive of PiS, there is the risk that Civic Platform and other parties will not have a fair way to contest the election’s results. Conversely, in the unlikely event that Civic Platform wins the election, PiS will retain the levers of power and have the ability to order recounts, stifle campaign gatherings and public statements, and limit media coverage of opposing viewpoints. In such a scenario, the EU may have to act as a mediator, a potentially embarrassing moment for the bloc that would only provide more fodder for PiS, which may view external mediation as a violation of Poland’s electoral sovereignty.
The COVID-19 outbreak has accelerated some of the pre-existing divisions in Europe related to integration, nationalism and protectionism, and it will likely further deepen those divisions in the years ahead. Poland, Hungary and the other Visegrad Group members are on a more protectionist and autocratic track. This puts them at odds with France, Germany and Spain, which are likely to focus on more integration and a common solution to the pandemic. If PiS wins, it will be through the promotion of solidarity and nationalism in a time of crisis, albeit with a stifled opposition that has little recourse to pursue its aims. Regardless of the outcome, a false sense of national unity and forced solidarity that only serves one political party will likely remain the greatest risk to Polish democracy.