No, it’s not the United States. These dynamics are taking place in Poland, which was scheduled for presidential elections earlier this month. Concerns about the virus and a partisan pulled back and forth have led to a chaotic last-minute delay – and persistent uncertainty as to when and how the new elections will take place.
But although there is no predetermined playbook for safe and fair elections during the coronavirus crisis, Poland’s experience offers some crucial lessons for other countries navigating these questions, including the United States: doing this the right way means planning as soon as possible – and somehow find a way to put political participation aside in order to come up with a voting plan that everyone believes is right.
In Poland, political polarization is at the heart of why the situation has turned into such uncertainty – and why debates on a new election are likely to be almost as thorny as those leading up to 10 May. Even if it had been organizationally possible for Poland to move to a vote by mail only at the last minute, the ability to prepare effectively for the elections does not mean much if a political consensus cannot be found on how to do it.
When neither side trusts the other to act in the best interests of citizens, this affects how people view their democracy. And this “seriously affects confidence in the establishment of the elections,” said Zselyke Csaky, director of research for Europe and Eurasia at the democracy control organization Freedom House. “This is a very serious concern, because it is one of the most important elements of a functioning democracy.”
All of this could have been avoided in the first place if PiS politicians had invoked a constitutional provision called “natural catastrophe”, which in circumstances such as a pandemic would have automatically delayed the elections by at least 90 days. But once the PiS leaders insisted that the elections take place as planned, they did not want to backtrack and change course – even when the leaked ballot papers and ballot papers that showed up on the street made it clear that the vote by mail only was far from ready.
But those in the opposition still have great concerns about the inherent advantages that Duda will receive as an incumbent and for PiS ‘willingness to leave the balance in its favor wherever possible.
“There is a greater chance that the elections will be free, but they will not be free in terms of equal campaigns,” said Milosz Hodun, adviser to the liberal party Nowoczesna (“modern”), which is part of the civic coalition. “Only the president will be able to campaign across the country … all other candidates are limited to the media and online presence.”
The United States also faces deep political polarization which has been further exacerbated by the pandemic; President Trump opposed those governors – primarily Democrats – who imposed stronger restrictions on fighting the virus, using his overbearing pulpit to call for the country to reopen as soon as possible. With each state responsible for establishing its own electoral rules and regulations ahead of the national vote in November, debates on the post against in-person voting and the access that each offers will most likely fall along partisan lines; as with Poland, this could also mean that any changes are implemented only at the last minute.
Polish observers hope their country has learned from its electoral “ghost” fiasco – and that the country will soon be able to hold an election that is better organized and fairer than that which did not take place earlier this month. Others, especially the United States, should pay attention while doing so.
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