Polish presidential election in chaos with only 4 days to go

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Andrzej Duda

FILE – In this file photo taken Feb. 19, 2020, Poland’s President Andrzej Duda, center, campaigning for his re-election in Warsaw, Poland. The Polish government’s determination to move forward with the May 10, presidential election during the coronavirus pandemic by making it an all-postal vote is creating anxiety and anger, and critics say the plan threatens public health and democracy in Poland.(AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

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WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland is scheduled to hold a presidential election in four days but nobody can say whether it will happen or not.

The date for Sunday’s election was set months ago, but the coronavirus pandemic and a government-ordered lockdown threw preparations into disarray. Bitter fighting between the conservative ruling party and its political opponents has kept them from agreeing on an alternative.

Legislation to authorize a proposed postal vote is still in parliament, with no guarantee it will pass. The government official in charge of the vote acknowledges the election cannot be pulled off Sunday, but the balloting has not been officially postponed, either.

The governing Law and Justice party was setting the stage Wednesday for a two-week postponement and seeking a top court’s permission for the delay.

Until now, Law and Justice party pushed to stick to the schedule set before the pandemic — a May 10 election day and a runoff two weeks later on May 24, if necessary – by arranging for voters to cast ballots exclusively by mail.

Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski insists the Polish Constitution requires the presidential election to take place in May. He also acknowledged the party fears its candidate, President Andrzej Duda, could lose the strong lead opinion polls give him now if the vote is delayed and fallout from the pandemic hits the now-robust Polish economy.

Rival parties oppose holding the vote now and want the government to declare a state of emergency that would make a three-month postponement legal. The parties argue that during the lockdown, their candidates have not been able to campaign properly while incumbent Duda frequently appears on state television broadcasts about the government’s virus-fighting efforts.

All of Poland’s living ex-presidentsand several former prime ministers plan to boycott what they called a “pseudo-election.”

Amid the uncertainly, Donald Tusk, an ex-prime minister and former top European Union leader, cited on Twitter an old joke about the shape of democracy in autocratic Belarus: “You never knew if or when elections will take place, but you always knew who will win.”

International democracy watchdogs, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, have also voiced concerns about the government’s rushed plans for the postal vote.

“For democratic elections, it’s crucial that there is an open debate and genuine campaigning,” said Katya Andrusz, spokeswoman for the OSCE’s Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.

Many Poles say they also intend to boycott a vote they don’t trust will be anonymous or fair. Under the current plan, 30 million registered voters would receive ballots in their home mailboxes and then on Sunday drop them in voting boxes set up in their neighborhoods.

Law and Justice proposed holding an all-postal vote weeks ago, saying that was a safe option during the pandemic. But the change in balloting methods requires parliamentary approval.

The legislation passed the lower house of parliament in early April, but the opposition-controlled Senate rejected it on Tuesday. Now, the bill returns to the lower house for a final vote, possibly on Wednesday. The outcome of the vote is uncertain. The ruling party was holding a strategy meeting Wednesday afternoon.

A government official in charge of organizing the postal vote, Jacek Sasin, said Monday that the schedule leaves too little timefor 30 million ballots to be delivered by Sunday.

Illustrating the chaos, Parliament Speaker Elzbieta Witek, the official with authority to set election dates, is seeking the Constitutional Court’s consent to postpone the vote until May 23. She also asked the State Electoral Commission if it could successfully supervise a presidential vote on Sunday.

The head of the commission, Sylwester Marciniak, replied Tuesday night that it was “impossible for legal and organizational reasons,” the PAP news agency said.

Complicating matters further, some members of a small party that is part of Poland’s coalition government support a postponement.

The rift could lead to a larger political crisis if Wednesday’s vote does not secure the narrow majority Law and Justice holds in the lower house.

May 23 is the latest legal date for the election under a constitutionally dictated schedule based on Duda’s 5-year term expiring on Aug. 6.

Law and Justice lawmaker and spokesman, Radoslaw Fogiel insists that under the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic, the party is trying to “solve the problems, rather than look for them.”

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Video journalist Rafal Niedzielski contributed to this report.

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