Last Sunday, Poland held a presidential election in which no one voted. No polling places were open; no results were counted and the turnout was zero percent.
If that sounds a bit nonsensical, that’s because it is: The canceled-but-not election day—or “bizarre ghost election,” as one international media organization called it—was just the latest installment in a weeks-long saga over the vote that has unfolded alongside the spread of the coronavirus in this Central European country.
Although the election date was set before the pandemic hit, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party, or PiS, insisted until the last minute that the vote would continue as planned. It was (and still is) in the party’s political interest to hold a vote as soon as possible: Its leaders worry that as Poles begin to feel the economic impact of the crisis, they’ll blame the current PiS-led government and punish the incumbent president, Andrzej Duda, at the ballot box.
To ensure the vote could go ahead on May 10, PiS officials originally introduced legislation in early April that would have mandated an unprecedented all-mail ballot. But the move was widely panned by opposition forces at home and international observers abroad, both expressing major concerns about whether the vote could be free and fair.
Most Poles were also against the idea, with a large majority saying it should be postponed. Finally, last Wednesday—just four days before the vote was scheduled to take place—PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski announced a last-minute deal to deem the May 10 election invalid and schedule a fresh vote. Election officials have called for some yet-to-be-determined date, most likely this summer; Duda’s current term expires on Aug. 6.
Now Poland is effectively in political limbo: With Sunday’s “election” behind it, voters are awaiting both a new election date and clarity about the governing rules. Will they be able to vote by mail or expected show up at polling places in person as usual? Will candidates need to collect tens of thousands of signatures again, a difficult undertaking while many Poles are still sequestered at home? And above all, in a country whose right-wing government has been criticized for undermining democratic institutions and the rule of law, will a new election be significantly more free and fair than the one that should have happened on Sunday?
“It’s not about whether the mail-in vote is less or more dangerous, it’s about changing the rules and bending the roles according to one’s immediate political needs,” Wojciech Przybylski, editor-in-chief of the Warsaw-based journal Visegrad Insight, told me via phone the week before the “ghost” election. “It’s a little bit like gerrymandering, but with a pandemic… you play with electoral processes in order to secure yourself an electoral win.”
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Holding elections during a pandemic is a complicated undertaking for any democracy. Officials must weigh the tradeoffs between protecting public health under unpredictable, rapidly changing circumstances, and upholding a central component of democracy. If an election does take place, voters have to choose between potentially putting themselves at risk and sitting out a vote entirely.
Poland is only one of many countries in the midst of such debates since the outbreak intensified this spring: In Wisconsin’s early April primary, headlines about last-minute legal battles and images of long lines at polling places underscored how fraught and divisive these questions can be. Local elections in France and the southern German state of Bavaria this spring also generated criticism they were putting citizens in danger by having them come to the polls.
At least 55 countries have opted to postpone elections in the midst of the pandemic, according to the latest count from the pro-democracy organization International IDEA. As the crisis continues, many more will face difficult decisions about whether and how to hold safe and fair elections. On this front, Poland can serve as a test case from which others—including the United States, with its presidential election slated for November—can and should learn.
Holding safe and fair elections during the pandemic requires two key components above all, says Zselyke Csaky, research director for Europe and Eurasia at Freedom House: First, that the government actually has the capacity to prepare for such an election; and second, that there’s a consensus among all political actors to ensure its integrity. Even the ability and resources to prepare doesn’t help countries much when their political camps are so polarized they don’t trust the others to act in voters’ best interests.
“It’s certainly a question for many Western democracies who have the capacity to prepare for elections, but in this polarized atmosphere might not have the political consensus to proceed,” Csaky said. “That’s what we’ve learned from the Polish example: You need to have this consensus way in advance, otherwise the incumbent president can take advantage.”
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In Poland, which is deeply politically polarized, a lack of that second component is primarily responsible for the weeks-long chaos before May 10. Typically, countries that want to hold free and fair elections stipulate that whoever’s in charge shouldn’t make major changes to the rules shortly before a vote: That ensures incumbents don’t bend the rules to benefit themselves or create widespread confusion.
A global pandemic seems like a legitimate reason to consider postponing or shifting the rules for an election—but that only works if there’s broad consensus over how to do so. In Poland, opposition parties argued the government should have invoked what’s called the “state of natural disaster,” a constitutional provision that would have automatically postponed elections for 90 days from the day the state would have been lifted. PiS, however, forged ahead with the election as planned despite the domestic and international criticism—partly because party leaders wanted to avoid losing face by backing down from their initial position.
While the party controls the governing coalition in the Sejm, the lower house of Poland’s parliament, the opposition has a narrow majority in the Senate, the upper house. The Senate can delay legislation up to 30 days—one of its few recourses in this case—which is what it opted to do with the measure calling for a mail-only vote on May 10. As a result, although the Sejm passed that bill on April 7, the issue was unresolved until May 6—leading to the last-minute scramble the week before the vote was scheduled to take place.
Even if the rules for a mail-only vote had been established well in advance and it was clear the vote could progress with no technical issues, a real concern remained that opposition parties would be effectively unable to run proper campaigns. As an incumbent president, Duda was able to visit hospitals, tour factories and give news conferences about the government’s handling of the crisis. State media, largely controlled by and favorably inclined toward PiS, frequently covered his actions, giving him an even broader platform. The current situation would have given Duda a real shot at reaching the 50-percent threshold required to avoid a second-round vote, something seen as less likely before the pandemic.
Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska, the candidate for the centrist Civic Coalition, suspended her campaign in protest in late March and called on supporters to boycott the election, saying such an advantage for the incumbent was unacceptable. (Donald Tusk, a former prime minister and head of the center-right European People’s Party, put it even more bluntly: He called on Poles to boycott the vote out of concern for “basic human decency.”) As a result, turnout was expected to be extremely low: Only 29 percent of Poles said they planned to vote, according to an early April poll.
Poland can serve as a test case from which others—including the United States, with its presidential election slated for November—can and should learn.
“From my opposition point of view, we had no campaign,” said Milosz Hodun, an adviser for the liberal party Nowoczesna (“Modern”), part of Civic Coalition. “A [real] campaign—meeting people, voters talking to voters—it’s not happening. It’s only the president who has the tools to campaign, and all the other candidates have absolutely no tools to campaign.”
What’s more, he added, because the virus has displaced nearly all other concerns in voters’ minds, they’re tuned out from campaign messages anyway—a dynamic that is likely to endure into a summer campaign season. “People were not thinking about the election, people were not thinking about politics,” he said. Unlike what Duda says and does, which because of his role as president may be relevant to the fight against the virus or the government’s response, most Poles were “not really listening to what the opposition candidates have to say because it was not really important for their daily lives.”
None of this contributes to the kind of environment in which different political forces, even if in wild disagreement on other issues, could come together to find common ground on preparing for a new election. Friends and contacts I spoke with were not especially optimistic that debates over a new election date and rules will be any easier.
“For [PiS’s] Kaczynski, to keep power is the most important thing—he was quite disappointed with the outcome in the parliamentary elections last year,” Michal Kokot, a foreign affairs reporter at the daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, told me. If Duda doesn’t secure the 50 percent necessary to avoid a second-round election, he added, “then he may lose, and this could be the beginning of the end for them.”
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Though the postponement gives Poland a temporary reprieve and lawmakers more time to sort out how to proceed, such difficult dynamics won’t simply go away now that the country has opted for later elections: The same political polarization and gridlock that contributed to the May 10 fiasco will surely complicate the process of setting a new election date and determining how the vote should be conducted.
The governing coalition this week passed legislation governing the new election in the Sejm, which would allow for an in-person vote with a mail ballot option, but opposition parties quickly threatened to block the bill, arguing—as they did in April—that PiS is hastily forcing through measures to benefit its own political interests.
And even if the election date and rules are set far enough in advance to adequately prepare, it’s far from clear that all candidates will get an equal chance to make their pitches to voters. Duda will continue to benefit from incumbency and the support of state media; opposition candidates will still struggle to be heard and connect with voters when no one knows how many restrictions will still be in place by election day.
Staszek Krawczyk, an editor at the Warsaw-based magazine Kontakt, told me this week that he’s less concerned about the mechanics of the election than the inherent disadvantages for opposition candidates. Always present to a certain extent, they are even more pronounced in the midst of a pandemic.
“Due to the fact that he’s president, Andrzej Duda… will have more opportunities to present himself and his program,” he said. “This could be a concern as far as equal chances for candidates are concerned: The field may not be level for everyone.”
Photo credit: Stiopa, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stiopa-Wybory2020_foto1.jpg