Amidst the uncertainty and fear caused by COVID-19 outbreak, the Polish Sejm has voted to change the electoral law to favour incumbent Andrzej Duda at the upcoming presidential elections.
In 2004, Poland has joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and in the same year, it has become a member of the European Union, where it is the 6th largest country in terms of population and the EU 6th biggest economy.
During the last decade the political party Law and Justice (PiS), has emerged as the winner of the parliamentary elections held in 2015 and 2019 and of the last presidential elections. PiS has been ruling over Poland under the lead of Jarosław Kaczyński who does not cover any institutional positions within the party but is the mind behind every decision. The country is being slowly turned into an authoritarian state and now PiS’s Poland has taken another step forward towards authoritarianism.
With Kaczyński in charge, the country has undergone some major changes through time. To mention the most relevant: the unpopular Sunday’s trading ban introduced in 2018 and last year’s controversial judicial reform repeatedly condemned by the EU.
Lastly, a few days ago the PiS-led Sejm (lower chamber of the Polish Parliament) approved a bill that would change the electoral law to favour incumbent Andrzej Duda, former PiS candidate, at the upcoming presidential elections to be held in May.
After a night-long parliamentary session that began on the 27th March, the Polish Sejm has approved a bill with 343 votes in favour. The bill was conceived as an emergency-package of measures intended to address the country’s economy and safeguard it from the repercussion of the COVID-19 outbreak. However, the ruling party PiS has unexpectedly proposed some last-minute amendments to be included in the bill that will bring major changes to the country’s electoral law.
Among the changes to be introduced by the legislation package the most relevant is the extension of postal voting to senior citizens (over 60 years old) and to all self-isolating or quarantined Poles. According to European observers and statistics, older and rural voters usually tend to vote for authoritarian parties like PiS, thus expanding postal voting to include this part of the electorate will easily secure Duda a second mandate.
Yet, the extension of postal voting will only apply to Poles who are located in the country and will exclude those voting from abroad. Indeed, Poles who are currently living abroad, and might not be able to return in time due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, will be deprived of their right to vote which represents a serious violation of a fundamental element of liberal democracy. Polish communities abroad have already expressed their dissent and outrage and are mobilising to obtain the postponement of the presidential elections.
As the latest polls show, Duda is leading the presidential race, and thus, postponing the elections would not be in his interest. The two other presidential candidates, Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska from Civic Platform (PO) and Robert Biedroń from Spring (Wiośna), have declared themselves open to the possibility of rescheduling the election. It has also been reported that the majority of Poles would be in favour of the postponement of the May presidential elections to a less critical time. However, no official decision has been taken thus far.
The legislative package has been largely criticized not only by the population but also by various politicians and experts who claim the changes to electoral law are unconstitutional. Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz, a member of Civic Platform (PO) spoke against the amendments proposed by PiS and said in a tweet that the changes are “breaking all rules of the electoral law”. Andrzej Zoll, former president of the Trybunał Konstytucjny (the Polish Constitutional Tribunal) and former Ombudsman, told Onet website that the amendments are “completely against the constitution and the electoral law.”
Their claims against PiS’ amendments are supported by a 2006 ruling of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal which stated that no major changes can be made to the electoral law during the six months preceding an election.
Despite the critiques moved by most members of PO, members of Civic Coalition (KO) voted in favour of the package, while all members of the Left, the Polish People’s Party (PSL) and Kukiz’15 voted against it, and Konfederacja abstained.
In the end, the legislation package, including the amendments that would change the electoral law, has been approved by the Sejm and has been sent to the Senate (upper house of the Polish Parliament) for debate.
The opposition-controlled Senate had two options. On one hand, it could have accepted the legislative package rejecting PiS amendments, the act would then be sent back to the Sejm, where PiS would obviously reject the Senate’s amendments. Or on the other hand, the upper house could have rejected the whole legislative package but then be criticised for not supporting the country and its economy in such a critical situation. In both cases, the ruling party PiS would have succeeded in its tactics and widened its consent while, once again, hampering democracy.
On the night of Monday 30th of March, the Senate has chosen the first option and voted to remove the amendments that would have changed the electoral law. The legislative package – devoid of PiS amendments – will now be sent back to the PiS-controlled Sejm, where the ruling party can still have its say and reverse the Senate’s decision.
The author of this article is Alice Germano. Born in Italy, she has lived and studied in different countries (Lithuania, Estonia, Scotland, Poland) and is currently based in Cracow. Alice holds a BA in International Relations and Diplomacy from the University of Trieste and is now pursuing a MA degree at the University of Glasgow in Central and Eastern European, Russian and Eurasian studies. Her interests encompass the contemporary political landscapes of post-Soviet and post-Communist states with a focus on democracy and human rights.