What Poland’s “ghost” election can teach us about democracy in the pandemic era

How vote-by-mail could change the 2020 election

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.

The resulting “bizarre ghost elections”, as one news organization called – an election day when no one voted and no polling station was opened – was the culmination of weeks of political battles between the Right-wing Justice and Justice Party (PiS) and the Polish opposition parties. Although the election date had been set before the virus hit Poland, PiS leaders insisted that the vote proceed as planned, worried that his candidate would have to fight in a subsequent election when the Poles began to feel the effects. economic pandemic. They introduced legislation in early April that would implement an unprecedented postal vote on 10 May.
But opposition leaders and international observers strongly opposed this plan, stating that reforms were being pushed too quickly and that such an election, especially under a government that he has been criticized for his approach to democracy and the rule of law, equates to a seizure of power by PiS and its incumbent president, Andrzej Duda. As a result, PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski announced only four days before the vote would not actually take place; election officials later found him invalid and called for new elections on a date to be determined this summer.
Holding elections during a pandemic is not an easy task, as countries like Poland have learned: in constantly changing circumstances, officials must balance the protection of public health by guaranteeing the democratic right of citizens to vote. At least 62 countries around the world, from the United Kingdom to Italy, from Ethiopia to Bolivia, have has opted for the postponement of the elections due to the spread of the virus. Others, including France, the state of southern Bavaria and Germany several WE States, they went on with the elections in person despite concerns that such votes potentially put citizens at risk.

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.

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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.”

As in the United States, control in the Polish parliament is divided: the ruling party coalition tightly controls the lower house, the Sejm, while the opposition strictly controls the upper house, the Senate. When the Sejm approved its legislation that required a vote for all mail in early April, the opposition used it constitutional ability to delay legislation, eventually taking all 30 days allowed. This meant that the legislation had been suspended until May 6, just four days before the elections were due to take place, leading to a last-minute fight.

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.

Duda, the candidate aligned with the PiS, also benefited from the power of the task, something that, at least in this case, was even more pronounced during a pandemic with voters largely stuck at home. As president-in-office, Duda could travel the country, visit hospitals and talk about government actions to fight the virus, many of which were then sent directly to voters from state television, controlled by and nice to the party in power.
Opposition candidates, on the other hand, were groped to hold press conferences via Zoom and move their entire online campaigns. Civic Coalition candidate, Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska, the largest opposition party, suspended her protest campaign and invited supporters to boycott the May 10 vote; one survey in early April suggested that few Poles had planned to cast votes.
The postponement of the elections provided a necessary recovery for Poland, and as the debates unfold on what will come next, some opposition members are optimistic that things will be handled a little better this time. Legislation imposing a vote in person with a vote option in the mail is already under considerationit’s at new election date – probably in late June or early July – should be fixed early. The Civic Coalition announced earlier this month that it has chosen a new candidate for the new elections, Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, who is already making significant gains in the polls.

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.

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“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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