Poles don’t go to the polls

There’s something decidedly odd about an authoritarian government doing everything to avoid having to declare a state of emergency. But that’s just one of the strange things about Poland’s presidential election, which happened – or depending on how you look at it, didn’t happen – last night.

When we looked at this two weeks ago it was already clear that Poland was heading for a fiasco. The opposition, trailing in the polls by a large margin, was arguing strongly for the election to be postponed. And it had an excellent case, given that Covid-19 presented a big health risk for attendance polling and that time was too short to organise a proper all-postal election.

But the Law & Justice party government, with which incumbent president Andrzej Duda is aligned, wasn’t keen on postponement, since that might give the opposition time to get its act together. And since the only way to legally postpone the election was under a state of emergency (which Covid-19 has led to in many other countries), Law & Justice opposed that as well.

The alternative of holding a postal vote, however, never got off the ground. Legislation to allow it was stalled in the Senate and the government excluded the electoral commission from the process, leading to serious questions about its probity. An impressive lineup of nine former presidents and prime ministers called for a boycott of the election.

Faced with a revolt within his own party, Law & Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński – universally treated as the ruler of Poland, although nominally he is just an ordinary MP –  reached an agreement last week with the opposition to postpone the poll until later in the year.

But there is still no state of emergency. So as a matter of law the election still happened, but no polling stations were open. That will allow the supreme court to declare the election void and set a new date. The legislation to allow for all-postal voting has now been passed, and the government has promised to legislate to return responsibility to the electoral commission.

That still leaves a lot of unknowns, including just when the election will be held and whether nominations will be reopened. If they are, it would give the opposition the chance to demonstrate some coherence and unite behind a single candidate. Even so, Duda would still start a firm favorite for re-election.

More generally, the story shows that Kaczyński’s power is rather less than absolute, and although Poland has followed Hungary some distance down the authoritarian road, its institutions are still capable of offering some resistance in a crisis.

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