Poland is scheduled to hold a presidential election in just four days but nobody can say whether it will happen or not.
Sunday’s election date was set months ago but preparations have been thrown into disarray by the coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown Poland is under to control the spread of the virus.
Bitter fighting between the ruling conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) and its opponents is preventing the sides from coming together to find an alternative.
Plans for the vote are in chaos.
Proposed legislation regulating it is still in Parliament, with no guarantee that it will pass. A government official in charge of the vote acknowledges that the election cannot be pulled off on Sunday – but it has not been officially postponed, either.
The ruling party on Wednesday was setting the stage for a two-week postponement of the election with the top court’s permission.
Up to now, PiS has been pushing to stick to schedule – holding a vote on Sunday with a runoff on May 24 if necessary – by making it a postal vote.
Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski insists the constitution requires the vote be held in May. But he also acknowledges the party fears its candidate, President Andrzej Duda, the frontrunner in opinion polls, could be weakened later when the economic pain of the pandemic lockdown hits the now-robust Polish economy.
Opposition parties are against holding the vote now and want the government to declare a state of emergency to create a legal way to postpone the vote by three months.
They note that, under the lockdown, their candidates have not been able to campaign in any normal fashion but Duda is constantly on state television amid the government’s virus-fighting efforts.
All of Poland’s living ex-presidents and several former prime ministers plan to boycott what they called a “pseudo-election”.
Donald Tusk, former Polish prime minister and former top European Union leader, likened the political situation to autocratic Belarus. He said on Tuesday on Twitter there used to be a joke there that “you never knew if or when elections will take place, but you always knew who will win”.
International democracy watchdogs have also voiced concerns, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
“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 plan to boycott a vote they do not 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 neighbourhoods.
Reports of ballots having been posted online or even lying in a street only added to the general distrust in the postal vote.
Weeks ago, PiS proposed holding the election exclusively by mail, regarding that as a safe option during the pandemic. But that required creating new legislation to regulate the all-postal election.
The law passed the lower house of Parliament in early April but was rejected on Tuesday by the opposition-controlled Senate. Now, the legislation returns to the lower house for a final vote, possibly on Wednesday.
The outcome of the vote is not certain.
A government official in charge of organising the postal vote, Jacek Sasin, said on Monday that the schedule leaves too little time for 30 million ballots to be delivered by Sunday.
Illustrating the chaos, Parliament speaker Elzbieta Witek, the official in charge of naming election dates, is seeking the constitutional court’s consent for a postponement till May 23, but also asked the State Electoral Commission if it could organise the presidential vote on Sunday.
The commission head, Sylwester Marciniak, replied on Tuesday night it was “impossible for legal and organisational reasons,” the PAP news agency said.
Complicating matters further, one small party in the conservative governing coalition is divided on the issue, with some of its members favouring a postponement. That creates the risk that the ruling party could lose its slim parliamentary majority.
Analysts see an advantage in postponing the election to May 17 or May 23, which would be the latest date possible under a constitutionally dictated schedule based on Duda’s five-year term expiring on August 6.
There has been speculation that if PiS loses its parliamentary majority, it could declare a state of emergency, dissolve the government and trigger new parliamentary and presidential elections for August.
But PiS politician 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”.