Elections to go ahead during Coronavirus pandemic; campaign warns voters ‘elections can kill’

Background

On 13th March, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced that due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, public gatherings are to be limited to no more than 50 people. On 24th March 2020, the government increased lockdown measures and limited public gatherings to two people until 11th April 2020. (The lockdown confines Polish denizens to their homes except for essential activities like working, buying food and taking care of elderly relatives).

While several European countries declared a state of emergency and justified the exceptional measures and rights restrictions introduced, the Polish government has refrained from doing so. Under Polish law, introducing a state of emergency would delay any election by 60 days after it is lifted. However, the governing Law and Justice party (PiS) insists that the presidential election, the first round of which is scheduled for 10th May 2020, must go ahead as planned. If required, a second round would go ahead two weeks later.

The PiS party’s decision to schedule an election amid the Coronavirus pandemic is said to be politically motivated. Their candidate, incumbent President Andrzej Duda is currently enjoying increased popularity, partly because of a “gather-round-the-flag” sentiment -- well-known during crises -- and partly because his challengers cannot carry out proper campaigning during this time due to the ban on public gatherings. Duda, on the other hand, as the current head of state, could be and has been campaigning around the country. It is for this reason that the opposition claims that a fair election is impossible.

On 29th March, the most popular opposition candidate, Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska of the Civic Platform (PO) called for a boycott of the election and completely suspended her campaign. According to a recent opinion poll, nearly three-quarters of Poles believe that the election should be postponed. Following this, several Mayors agreed that it is impossible to hold an election.

However, on the 6th April 2020 Polish lawmakers voted for the elections to go ahead. This comes after the PiS party managed, on a second attempt, to push measures through the lower house for an election to be conducted through a postal vote. This means that there will be no physical polling stations. Rather, all ballots will be delivered by post and each person will drop their vote in special post boxes in their local area, which will then be sent for counting. However, there is a concern that postal votes will still lead to the spread of the virus and that the postal services are ill- equipped to deal with an election.

Expression

In response to the decision to go ahead with elections, an informal group of activists who call themselves the headquarters of a spontaneous civic campaign (Spontaniczny Sztab Obywatelski) have begun placing billboards in PiS strongholds reading: “May elections can kill. After corpses to power?” The billboard is illustrated with a photo of President Andrzej Duda. 

In a petition, which has over 305,000 signatures, The Election Observatory Association in Poland called for a postponement of the elections. 

Following the decision to host the election via post, the organisation penned an open letter to municipalities:

“Elections conducted in such conditions (justified fear of voters before voting, no normal campaign) will not be universal or free, they will be undemocratic (and therefore invalid) both in the light of the Constitution and the Electoral Code, as well as in the light of universally accepted standards of democracy...(translated from Polish).”

Association

Report on persecution of judges

As reported previously by the Monitor, on 4th February 2020, President Andrzej Duda approved a controversial law that radically restricts judicial independence. Without judicial independence, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of association are not duly protected against unlawful acts by the government. The Open Dialogue Foundation (ODF) submitted a report to the European Commission on the state of the judiciary in EU Member States. The study conducted with the ‘Themis’ Association of Judges, concerned the state of the Polish justice system. The data reveals that 78 judges were repressed -- either through using hard and soft disciplinary, criminal and administrative measures -- because of their legal (either judicial or non-judicial) activities. The report stated:

Given that these persecutions concern either judges who publicly criticise the judicial pseudo-reform, or those whose judicial or administrative activity was inconvenient for the ruling camp, it should be recognised that these persecutions have political overtones and tend to limit the independence of the judiciary by provoking a "chilling effect" among the judges in order to subordinate them to executive power.”
Concerns about interference of Social Dialogue Council raised

On 29th March 2020 trade unions and employers’ organisations protested against new legislation to combat the coronavirus, which was adopted on Sunday by the Polish Sejm [Parliament], which authorises the prime minister to dismiss members of the Social Dialogue Council during the period of the state of emergency. Trade unions view this as an attack by the authorities on the independence of the country’s Social Dialogue Council and the autonomy of social partner organisations, under the guise of measures to combat COVID-19. The Social Dialogue Council facilitates dialogue between representatives of employees, employers and the government.

Luca Jahier, President of the European Social and Economic Committee, called on Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, to withdraw the legislation.