Poland considers going postal

Many countries now seem to be over the worst of the Covid-19 crisis, and are starting to tentatively relax their restrictions as a result. But the limited social activities that are becoming possible do not, as yet, include conventional elections.

Between now and late June there is only one major election scheduled: the Polish presidential election, set for 10 May. And it looks as if it won’t be happening as a traditional attendance poll, although at the moment there’s very little that we can say about it with confidence.

Some background first: Poland has a parliamentary system, so the president is mostly a figurehead, although their powers can sometimes be important. Incumbent Andrzej Duda, who represents the governing right-wing Law & Justice party, was elected narrowly in 2015, winning with 51.5% in the second round. He is now seeking a second term.

His party, meanwhile, has gone from strength to strength, winning successive parliamentary elections and taking the country on a sharp turn to the right. The opposition is divided and demoralised; its failure to unite behind a single candidate to oppose Duda is typical of its plight.

So there’s no question that if an election, of pretty much any sort, is held now or in the near future, Duda will win in a landslide. The most recent polls show him approaching 60% of the vote, with none of his five opponents managing double figures.

Law & Justice, not surprisingly, wants to hold the election on schedule. But it’s also conscious of the fact that its mostly older voters are the ones most in danger if they have to show up at coronavirus-spreading polling stations. Rather than risk either low turnout or a high death rate among that group, it’s proposed a nationwide postal ballot.

Early this month, the lower house of parliament passed legislation to that effect. The opposition then blocked it in the Senate (where it has a tenuous majority), arguing that the election should be postponed until late this year or early next year. By then, it hopes, it will be able to present more of a united front and the government will have lost face over its response to the crisis.

The Senate can only delay legislation for a month, but that’s enough to run to just a few days before 10 May. So the post office has started preparing for a postal election anyway, even though it hasn’t yet been authorised. And since the government has sidelined the electoral commission from the process, the post office has to compile a roll.

Zosia Wanat at Politico takes up the story:

The mayors of several towns have refused to transfer information about their constituents, including their names, address and national register numbers, to the Polish Post, which is charged with organizing the vote on May 10.

They cite data privacy concerns, arguing that the postal service’s request rests on dubious legal grounds. …

The Polish Post followed up with a request — from a generic email address and lacking a person’s signature — asking for the data to be sent by email, in compressed .txt or .csv files, without any additional protection or password.

This looks like being a fiasco. Even on the (rather unrealistic) assumption that the government is trying to do the right thing and conduct a scrupulously fair election, there just isn’t enough time left to get it right. If it goes ahead at all, large numbers of Poles will be effectively disenfranchised.

As pointed out already, the polling is sufficiently clear that that’s unlikely to make any difference to the result. But democracy isn’t a matter of just getting the right outcome – it’s about having a credible process that people can have confidence in. This isn’t it.

A couple of weeks ago I explained why all-postal elections are a dangerous idea, and suggested that in most cases a relatively short postponement would be preferable. That’s even more the case when decisions are being made on the run and at the last minute, and by institutions whose political neutrality is less than clear.

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