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Poland’s Election Mess Is a Warning to America

The pandemic and the core function of democracies.
May 13, 2020
Poland’s Election Mess Is a Warning to America
Polish Minister of Science Jaroslaw Gowin - leader of small right wing party Agreement (Porozumienie) in coalition with rulling Law and Justice Party (PiS) is seen during a session of the lower house of parliament, in Warsaw, May 6, 2020. (Photo by Wojtek RADWANSKI / AFP) (Photo by WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

On Sunday, Poland held a presidential election. However, no polling stations were open, no votes were cast or counted and the National Electoral Commission ruled the same day that a new election had to be called—probably in June or July.

The shambolic election and its coming repeat are a defeat for the leader of the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party, Jarosław Kaczyński, who pressed for a dramatic rewrite of the electoral law just weeks before the vote and tried to issue an ultimatum to the opposition: It’s either an election under our rules, on May 10, or an extension of the president’s mandate by two years.

The changes envisaged by PiS were massive. The entire election was to be held by mail and the responsibility for distributing and counting votes was to be taken away from the Electoral Commission, an independent body. Under the new rules, the responsibility would fall on the Post Office. Yet, as Marcin Zaborowski, the editor in chief of Res Publica, noted, the latter is a “state-owned company headed by . . . [Tomasz Zdzikot, a staunch PiS] loyalist and until recently a deputy minister of defense. A number of other strategic positions in the Post Office have been staffed now with former employees of the Ministry of Defense.”

Because PiS does not control the upper house, the legislation was being held up in the senate until the last moment—otherwise the lower house, the Sejm, could simply break the senate veto and rush ahead with the election. Because the law was not in effect, local authorities were reluctant to share their citizens’ personal information with the Post Office. Yet, until Wednesday—just three days before the vote—Kaczyński insisted on holding the election under the new rules, even though there was no feasible way of doing so. In the end, the governing coalition decided to let the election proceed under the old rules, while also not letting it proceed at all.

Holding the presidential election on May 10 was a risky proposition from the moment the country had gone into lockdown in March. The Polish constitution provides for a solution: under a state of emergency, the election could be postponed by three months. With enough advance notice, a robust vote-by-mail system could also be devised, based on a cross-party consensus, so that the election can be held remotely.

PiS tried to avoid that path. Instead, it first proposed that only citizens above the age of 60 and diaspora members be allowed to vote by mail. Unsurprisingly, the party enjoys disproportionate levels of support among those demographic groups. Then, it announced that the entire election would be done by mail, at a few weeks’ notice. Also, because of COVID-19, all campaigning was halted—yet, Andrzej Duda, the incumbent president and a PiS member for a decade, until he renounced party membership when elected president, was given unlimited airtime on state media.

Before arriving in power in 2015, Kaczyński famously promised to build a “Budapest in Warsaw.” He has since modeled his party’s governance style after that of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, which has now all but suspended the normal functioning of Hungary’s democracy. The party has made sweeping changes to Poland’s judiciary and effectively suspended constitutional review of new legislation, turned public broadcasting into a propaganda machine, and started “repolonizing” large parts of the economy by using the government to purchase prominent banks and media corporations from foreign investors.

Yet it is fair to say that Poland has not followed Hungary’s example in all respects. Poles are more distrustful of Russia and the opposition and civil society are stronger and far better organized in Poland than in Hungary. The fact that PiS blinked a couple of days before the holding what would have been an illegitimate presidential election is certainly good news, even though the chaos has necessarily eroded the trust that Poles can have in the integrity of the political and electoral system.

For Americans, there is a twofold lesson in Poland’s current electoral shambles. First, even peoples as committed to freedom and democracy as Poles are risk losing them at the hands of aspiring autocrats. Similarly, the idea that one of the two main parties in the United States will cry foul after November 3 and refuse to accept the election’s results as legitimate is far from hysterical. Second, avoiding an election embarrassment, if not catastrophe, requires thoughtful action by the state now, not at the last minute like in Poland. States must plan ahead, not procrastinate, to make sure that there are avenues for safe, fair, and legitimate voting regardless of whether the pandemic continues to affect the United States by then or not. Let us hope that it can be done.

Dalibor Rohac

Dalibor Rohac is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @DaliborRohac.