Being & Nothingness: The Polish election that wasn’t

Expert insight by Marek Matraszek, Chairman, CEC Government Relations – exclusive for Warsawpoint
As Warsaw Mayor Rafał Trzaskowski takes the presidential candidate hotseat to contest incumbent Andrzej Duda for the Presidency of the nation, a long-time political observer takes stock of one of the most confusing periods in Polish political history.

Business and economic growth has continued impressively since 1990 in Poland, and the deep and wide presence of foreign investments in Poland is testament to the country’s success. Yet alongside this success, there is a noisy neighbour: Polish politics, which seems to have an inbuilt genetic tendency to reel from crisis to crisis, conflict to conflict. That has been the pattern for much of the last thirty years, where the excitement comes not so much from genuine policy debate, but what is below the surface of politics: infighting, splits, scheming and the general bad-temperedness of what is largely personality- rather than policy-driven discord. But even the most jaded observers of the scene would have found it difficult to foresee what has turned out to be the mother-of-all-crises that has just struck Poland, combining electoral, political and constitutional controversies, which even now do not have a clear end state in sight. And regardless of what that end-state will be, the further ripple effects of the crisis will have an enduring impact on the Polish political scene, enough to keep voters, politicians and pundits alike busy for years to come.

So what is the nature of the crisis, and how did we get here? Before the days of COVID, Polish politics was proceeding as normal, with Presidential elections scheduled for 10 May, as per the Constitution, in order for there to be a smooth succession (or re-election) of incumbent President Duda before 6 August, which is the date that his term of office formally expires. Opposition candidates had been selected, campaigns had started to move into high gear – and suddenly the enormity of the virus threat became clear to all. Poland was one of the countries that shut down early – in mid-March – and after a fleeting few days when the election campaigns tottered on regardless, it soon became clear that a ‘normal’ election could not take place. There was too much of a health risk, and Health Minister Łukasz Szumowski was especially vocal in warning of the implications of mass voting at the projected height of a pandemic.

Opposition riding low in the polls

At this point politics came into play, both within the ruling party and the opposition. On the one hand, the ruling Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS) party was anxious to plough on – President Andrzej Duda was doing well in the opinion polls and seemed to be heading for a first-round victory. Conversely his opponents were in the doldrums, and none more so than Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska of the opposition Civic Coalition (Platforma Obywatelska, PO), who had long been regarded as the main pretender to take Duda into a second-round run off. Yet her lacklustre campaign had seen her slipping in the polls, and also facing a challenge from Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz of the centrist Polish Peoples’ Party (Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe, PSL).

Another hat in the ring

And there was a third player who emerged – Jarosław Gowin, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Higher Education and Science, as well as leader of the small ‘Agreement’ (‘Porozumienie’) political party with whom Law and Justice is in formal alliance. Gowin also has 18 MPs in the governing parliamentary alliance, enough to hold the balance of power given the government possesses only a five-seat majority in the lower house of parliament (Sejm). For reasons which remain obscure, Gowin decided to play hardball with PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński and demanded that the election be delayed. One reason was of genuine concern for public health – Health Minister Szumowski also belongs to Gowin’s party – but a political motive was to increase his stock both within the ruling alliance and the electorate. His initial gambit was to propose an amendment to the Constitution that would have extended Duda’s term of office for two years, without the option of running again, and to hold Presidential elections in 2022. Despite initial murmurs of interest, this option was cold-shouldered by the opposition – driven by a visceral suspicion of anything, however sensible, to emerge from the ruling camp – and thus torpedoing the idea, needing as it did a two-thirds majority to pass through parliament as a whole.

State of Emergency?

During this phase of the crisis, the opposition had been calling on the government to institute a State of Emergency, which would have caused elections to be delayed for its duration and 90 days thereafter. This would have pushed the election into August at the earliest. The government resisted – claiming that this in itself was unconstitutional and would set a precedent for elections being able to be delayed on a pretext. At this point the ruling Law and Justice party leadership decided to pursue an alternate path – to stick to 10 May elections, but to organize them as an all-postal ballot election. This was the last straw for Gowin, who at that point resigned as Deputy PM and vowed to use his leverage in parliament to prevent the postal ballot law entering force and to delay elections beyond 10 May.

More complexities ensued, but boiled down to two main vectors. One was the increasing realization that the postal ballot law was deeply flawed and that Poczta Polska, the Polish postal operator – which under the law would have managed the elections – would be incapable of ensuring a fair and transparent electoral process, and that this would open Law and Justice up to international criticism as well as possible legal challenges in Poland. The second vector was from the opposition itself, which saw merit in delaying the review of the admittedly flawed bill in the opposition-controlled Senate, so that the law could not enter force with enough time before 10 May, and thus making the election technically impossible. This would serve the opposition’s interests, allowing more time for Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska to revive her campaign rather than face certain defeat on 10 May.

The ‘ghost’ election

The crisis came to a head in the few days before 10 May, when the Senate vetoed the all-postal ballot law and it became clear that Deputy PM Gowin would make good on his threat and support the veto in the lower house – thus depriving Poland of having any legal mechanisms, or time, to organize an election of any sort on 10 May. At the last moment, a compromise was reached between Gowin and Kaczyński. Gowin and his MPs would overturn the Senate (upper house) veto, but immediately after 10 May, move to amend the law to allow for a workable postal ballot option, with the election then taking place possibly in June. But it was too late to stop the non-event of 10 May taking place. Only in Polish politics can a nothing be a something.

10 May will go down in history as the most curious day in Polish politics since 1989: the day an election was supposed to occur, but no-one showed up. The polling stations were closed, there were no officials on hand – and yet no-one had actually cancelled the vote. The next day, the State Electoral Commission declared the election null, and laid out a legal path forward. Arcane legal arguments had to be concocted, but the upshot is that the Speaker of Parliament, Elżbieta Witek, will need to mandate a new election to take place within 60 days of her announcement, which on the current timetable would place it towards the end of June or in July. There would also be the matter of a revamped electoral law, now designed to permit mixed physical and postal balloting on the day of the election. The one date that cannot be changed is 6 August, the date President Duda’s current mandate expires. If that date is missed through further legislative shenanigans, Poland will not only not have had an election – it will be without a Head of State as well. Hopefully, despite last minute manoeuvrings, the degree of fatigue in both the ruling elites and also the general public will finally allow the elections to move ahead in time for President Duda or his successor to be sworn in by 6 August.

A deep rift

Yet that scenario will not be able to conceal the deeper damage and rifts that this crisis will have left in its wake. Firstly, the opposition has made much of the inefficiencies of the government’s aborted plan for elections on 10 May, deepening the perception among some Western media observers of Poland as a country of political chaos and confusion. Internally, the gulf of suspicion and resentment between government and opposition – already deep – has become all-consuming, eliminating to a minimum any scope for bipartisanship, extending also to the electorate and not just party elites. Those wounds will take much time to heal.

At the same time, the electoral delay has allowed new political dynamics to emerge. Firstly, within Law and Justice, the centrifugal forces between the core of the movement led by Jarosław Kaczyński, and the two smaller allied parties – ‘Solidarity Poland’ (Solidarna Polska) as well as ‘Agreement’ – has emerged in full, and many suspect it will be only a matter of time before a new crisis sets off similar splits again, and threatens the government’s small parliamentary majority. And now that the presidential election is to be held in the early summer, under worsening public sentiments as a result of the economic impact of the virus crisis, the path to victory for President Duda could be much more difficult.

A candidate replaced

On the opposition side, the decline in support for Kidawa-Błońska – dragging down the parliamentary polling of the Civic Platform (PO) party with her – has led to her being replaced as candidate by the current Mayor of Warsaw Rafał Trzaskowski. This move is laden with risk for PO – and Trzaskowski – but the alternative of seeing the party destroyed at the elections was too awful: Trzaskowski’s goal, at best, will be to achieve a result good enough to ensure PO’s survival as the leading opposition force. The bigger threat to Civic Platform will be if it is Szymon Hołownia, the independent candidate, who makes it into the second round instead of Trzaskowski. Holownia appeals to a similar electorate as the Civic Platform, and he has already stated that a good result will encourage him to form his own political movement. Another threat to PO is also from the more centrist direction of the PSL and Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz, its chairman – and again, a result that sees the latter overtaking Trzaskowski will also eat into PO’s electoral support longer term. The shelf-life of Polish political parties is about a decade at most, and it may be that the Civic Platform party – the party of Donald Tusk – will see its electorate shift to other, more successful vehicles, to realise its political ambition of removing Law and Justice from power.

The election also seems to mark a nadir for the once-powerful Left, with its candidate, the openly-gay Robert Biedron, failing to appeal to either the increasingly-elderly post-communist electorate, or the more European-leaning youth vote seemingly gravitating to Hołownia. Whilst the Left declines, the more radical Right under the Confederation (Konfederacja) banner is in the ascendancy, combing a muscular nationalism with libertarian economics to appeal to a frustrated under-24 electorate that sees the Confederation’s youthful leader Krzysztof Bosak as a man of the future, if not of the present this time around.

Polish politics is just emerging from a maelstrom which has left its main players bedraggled and voters confused. Yet the calm is still far away and no politician can be sure of total success – or complete failure either. But regardless of who wins the election, deep emotional and ideological scars will remain, scars that will continue to make Polish politics fundamentally dysfunctional. There will also be eddies and unpredictable currents feather ahead, and it will be a brave man or woman who would wish to be captain of the ship on such choppy seas.

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