Poland has been governed by the Law and Justice (PiS) party since 2015, when President Andrzej Duda was elected, and the party first got a majority in parliament. They were voted in as traditional, Catholic conservatives with promises of lowering the retirement age, massively increasing child support and free medication for the elderly. They have largely delivered on these promises, but many voters got more than they bargained for.
In the years since gaining power, PiS have replaced judges on the Constitutional Tribunal, made the Minister of Justice, Prosecutor General giving him the power to suspend any investigation and reworked the supreme court to better suit their purposes. At the same time, they managed to cut funding to renewable energy solutions while subsidising coal mines, launched a sustained attack on already non-existent LGBTQ rights, removed sex-education from the school curriculum labelling it deviant propaganda and built up nationalism across the board.
The party has shown that they can work around any obstacle that stands in their way, be it legal, social or practical. Through state media they have control of the narrative and manage to portray themselves as patriots who get things done while the opposition are spun as conspirators whose aims are to undermine the country’s success. Combine that with generous government handouts and a decent economy, PiS manage to keep their majority in the Sejm (lower house) while narrowly missing a majority in the Senate (upper house) in a 2019 parliamentary election. In May it’s time to re-elect Andrzej Duda, but things got complicated.
Poland’s reaction to coronavirus was lightning-fast. Borders and schools have been closed and planes grounded since mid-March. Flights were organised to bring back Poles stranded abroad, and anyone coming into the country was forced to quarantine for 14 days, which was enforced by the Police. The measures seem to have worked, with the curve being flat and just over 600 people having died. Shopping centres and primary schools are set to open soon, and non-essential travel is allowed. Look a little deeper and the more troubling side of the virus response is revealed. The early lockdown was necessary because the Polish health service is in a terrible state. Doctors do not have PPE, hospitals are small and cramped and tests were not available. Scheduled operations were cancelled, patients are still being denied treatment and many medical personnel were quarantined following outbreaks at hospitals. Online learning at schools is woefully inadequate. Students without access to the appropriate technology were failed and told to retake the year. Many pupils have gone missing, those from abusive homes and with mental health issues were not offered support. On top of that, during lockdown nobody under the age of 18 could leave their house unaccompanied, which meant no escape for victims. PiS have managed to avoid blame and continue to use the pandemic to justify everything they do by cherry-picking scientific advice.
The government did not declare a state of emergency throughout their handling of the pandemic, because that would mean postponing the presidential election scheduled in May. They chose to introduce the lockdown rules through government decree, which many lawyers stating it was unlawful. People were being fined up to 30,000 PLN (~£6000) for breaking the lockdown rules without right of appeal. National forests and parks were shut illegally, which stranded large families in tiny flats for weeks. Legislation to help businesses and workers was inadequate, and restrictions on civil rights and even animal rights were passed bolted onto the bill. On April 15 PiS took advantage of public gatherings being illegal to discuss in parliament toughening abortion laws (Poland already has the toughest laws in Europe), longer prison sentences for sex-educators, allowing children to tag along with hunting parties and weakening Jewish heritage rights. There were many more controversial, incompetent and illegal decisions, but chief among them is the government’s determination to hold the presidential election in May.
While the country is in crisis, the PiS government’s priority is getting their president re-elected. Social distancing and voting does not mix, so new ideas are needed. The latest plan is to hold the elections by post. There has never previously been postal voting in any form in Poland, yet the government believes that they can organise an exclusively postal election in a matter of weeks. They started by giving all the powers of the Electoral Commission to the state-owned Postal Service. The legislation pertaining to the election is still being debated in the Senate, but a senior Minister admitted that ballots were already being printed by his department. At the same time post offices submitted requests to local councils for voter data. The requests were denied as they were illegal and a breach of data protection. The Minister for Digital Solutions stepped in and provided the Postal Service with full access to the PESEL database, which contains everything the government knows about citizens, including their marital history, their parents and spouses’ data, full address history and birth and death acts. All this information would be more than enough to take out a loan in someone’s name or steal their identity. This data is now being handled by postal workers. A further problem was the manpower requirement, so the government decided that posties’ families could help deliver ballots. Ballots are going to have the voter’s data on them, so votes will no longer be secret. Millions of Poles living overseas will not have a way to vote. An unknown number of ballots will be lost. There will be no observers and little transparency. The Polish constitution is clear on what makes a democratic election, and what PiS is planning fails the test.
Senior civil servants and politicians, including Donald Tusk, former prime minister and European Council president, have called on people to boycott the election. The opposition candidates were planning to walk out together to leave Andrzej Duda as the only candidate, which would delay the election, but PiS quickly fronted up a second dummy candidate to foil this attempt. The European Union has been slow and ineffective in disciplining Poland. International bodies including the Human Rights Watch and the OECD have expressed concern over the way that the election is being handled. The government is taking advantage of people’s fear over coronavirus. They are ignoring Trade Unions and opposition groups, but this should come as a surprise to no one. Over the years PiS have undermined all the institutions that are needed in a democracy, this election is just the icing on the cake.