What Poland’s ‘ghost’ election’ can teach us about pandemic-era democracy

No, it’s not the United States. These dynamics are playing out in Poland, which was scheduled to hold its presidential election earlier this month. Concerns over the virus and a drawn-out partisan back-and-forth led to a messy, last-minute postponement — and to lingering uncertainty about when and how a new election will take place.

The resulting “bizarre ghost election,” as one news organization called it — an election day on which no one voted and no polling places were open — was the culmination of weeks of political battles between the ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS) and Poland’s opposition parties. Though the election date had been set before the virus hit Poland, PiS leaders insisted the vote should go ahead as planned, worried its candidate would struggle in a later election as Poles began feeling the economic effects of the pandemic. They introduced legislation in early April that would have implemented an unprecedented all-mail vote on May 10.
But opposition leaders and international observers strongly opposed this plan, saying the reforms were being pushed through too hastily—and that such an election, especially under a government that has been criticized for its approach to democracy and the rule of law, amounted to a power grab by PiS and its incumbent president, Andrzej Duda. As a result, PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski announced just four days beforehand that the vote wouldn’t actually happen; election officials later deemed it invalid and called for fresh elections on some to-be-determined date this summer.
Holding elections during a pandemic is not an easy task, as countries like Poland have learned: Under constantly changing circumstances, officials need to balance protecting public health with ensuring citizens’ democratic right to vote. At least 62 countries across the world, from the United Kingdom to Italy to Ethiopia to Bolivia, have opted to postpone elections due to the spread of the virus. Others, including France, the southern German state of Bavaria, and several US states, have gone ahead with in-person elections despite concerns that such votes were potentially putting citizens at risk.

But although there is no set 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 US: Doing this right means planning as early as possible — and somehow finding a way to set aside political partisanship in order to come up with a plan for voting that everyone believes is fair.

In Poland, political polarization is at the heart of why the situation devolved into such uncertainty — and why debates about a new election are likely to be nearly as thorny as the ones leading up to May 10. Even if it had been organizationally possible for Poland to make the last-minute switch to a mail-only vote, the ability to effectively prepare for an election doesn’t mean much if you can’t find a political consensus on how to do it.

When neither side trusts the other to act in the best interest of citizens, it affects the way people view their democracy. And this “seriously impacts trust in the institution of elections,” said Zselyke Csaky, research director for Europe and Eurasia at the democracy watchdog organization Freedom House. “That’s a very serious concern, because that’s one of the most important elements of a functioning democracy.”

As in the US, control in the Polish parliament is split: The ruling party’s coalition narrowly controls the lower house, the Sejm, while the opposition narrowly controls the upper house, the Senate. When the Sejm passed its legislation mandating an all-mail ballot in early April, the opposition used its constitutional ability to delay the legislation, ultimately taking the full 30 days allowed. This meant that the legislation was held up until May 6, just four days before the election was supposed to take place, leading to a last-minute scramble.

All of this could have been avoided in the first place if PiS politicians had invoked a constitutional provision called the “state of natural disaster,” which in circumstances like a pandemic would have automatically delayed the election by at least 90 days. But once PiS leaders had insisted the election take place as scheduled, they didn’t want to back down and change course — even when leaked ballot papers and ballots showing up on the street made it clear the mail-only vote was far from ready.

Duda, the PiS-aligned candidate, also benefited from the power of incumbency, something that, in this case at least, was even more pronounced during a pandemic with voters largely stuck at home. As the sitting president, Duda could travel around the country, visit hospitals and speak about the government’s actions to combat the virus — much of which was then broadcast directly to voters by state television, controlled by and sympathetic to the ruling party.
Opposition candidates, on the other hand, were left scrambling to organize press conferences via Zoom and move their entire campaigns online. Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska, the candidate for the Civic Coalition, the biggest opposition party, suspended her campaign in protest and urged supporters to boycott the May 10 vote; one survey in early April suggested few Poles had planned to cast votes.
Postponing the election provided a much-needed reprieve for Poland, and as debates unfold over what comes next, some in the opposition are optimistic that things will be handled a bit better this time around. Legislation mandating an in-person vote with a vote-by-mail option is already under consideration, and a new election date — likely in late June or early July — is expected to be set soon. Civic Coalition announced earlier this month that it had 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 major concerns about the inherent advantages Duda will receive as the incumbent, and about PiS’s willingness to tip the scales in his favor wherever they can.

“There’s a bigger chance that the elections will be free, but they will not be free in terms of equal campaigning,” said Milosz Hodun, an adviser to the liberal Nowoczesna (“Modern”) party, which is part of Civic Coalition. “Only the president will be able to campaign across the country … all other candidates are limited to media and online presence.”

The US, too, faces deep political polarization that’s been further exacerbated by the pandemic; President Trump has pitted himself against those governors — mainly Democratic — who have imposed stronger restrictions to combat the virus, using his bully pulpit to call for the country to reopen as soon as possible. With each state responsible for setting its own election rules and regulations ahead of the nationwide vote in November, debates about mail versus in-person voting, and the access each affords, are very likely to fall along partisan lines; as with Poland, this might also mean any changes get implemented only at the last minute.

Polish observers hope their country has learned from its “ghost” election fiasco — and that the country can soon hold an election that is better run and fairer than the one that didn’t happen earlier this month. Others, especially the US, should be paying attention as they do.

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